Grant Woodward: Time the Tories started making plans for Nigel

THANK heavens for Nigel Farage. Not a view shared at Conservative Central Office, obviously, where they’re trying to extricate David Cameron from the mess caused by his reluctance to debate the Ukip leader in front of the television cameras. But for the rest of us, the undeniably engaging bogeyman of mainstream UK politics is just the tonic we need if we’re going to get through the next three-and-a-bit months.

Take him out of the election mix and it all looks mind-numbingly predictable. Labour will continue to “weaponise” the NHS in a bid to convince us the Tories won’t be happy until the nation’s hospitals are being run by McDonalds. The Conservatives will hit back by reminding us of the mess Labour made of it last time – enough to give anyone thinking of plumping for the two Eds serious pause for thought.

Throw Farage in there and suddenly you have an x-factor. No one really knows what Nigel will do next – least of all, you suspect, Nigel himself. Will he disown another manifesto? Have a go at breastfeeding mothers? Blame motorway congestion on immigrants? The one certainty is that at some point he will be pictured chatting happily in the pub with a pint in his hand. In fact, that could well be the central plank of Ukip’s campaign – Come and Have a Pint with Nigel. Chances are there would be no shortage of takers.

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If and when the TV debates do go ahead, we will have fun watching him make the main party leaders squirm. Who didn’t enjoy watching Cameron and Gordon Brown take turns to tell us “I agree with Nick” last time round? For Nick last time read Nigel now – the outsider who can say exactly what a sizeable chunk of voters want to hear, knowing full well he won’t have to make good on any of the promises he plucks out of the air.

And this capacity for making mischief has been ratcheted up a notch by Ofcom’s decision to designate Ukip a main party, giving Farage the platform he’s been craving. It means that whenever he pops up on the campaign trail – no doubt on his way to or just heading back from the pub – he’s guaranteed screen time.

But such exposure is a double-edged sword for Ukip, a party that has so far got away with doing little more than voicing issues that worry voters but mainstream politicians don’t really want to talk about. Now its policies – assuming it has some that Nigel has been made aware of, having insisted he hadn’t heard of half the stuff in an earlier Ukip manifesto – will be placed under scrutiny.

Then there is Nigel himself. While plenty would happily go for a pint for him, how many would actually go the whole hog and vote for him? The problem for Ukip is that at the moment it’s all about Nigel. A hero to some, a pantomime villain to others. It’s all a bit one-dimensional. He needs to convince voters that there’s substance behind the soundbites and that he has what it takes to corral the competing – and often contrary – elements within his party.

That’s because arguably the greatest barrier to Ukip success in May lies in its make-up. The perception remains that’s it’s little more than a ragtag alliance of the disullusioned and desperate – David Cameron’s “swivel-eyed loons”. And they keep coming out with genuinely bonkers statements that risk making them unelectable.

Claiming that floods are the result of the Government’s decision to legalise gay marriage. Referring to gay Ukip members as “poofters” and speaking about shooting people on a “peasant hunt”. Telling Lenny Henry to emigrate. These are the sort of embarrassing own-goals that Ukip can no longer afford if it is to turn momentum into seats this May.

If Nigel can keep a lid on his candidates and no longer have to worry about them making gaffes, then it will be left to the Conservatives to worry about Nigel. And David Cameron’s severe case of cold feet over the thought of sharing a television studio with him suggests the Ukip threat has them rattled.

Then the running theme of the election campaign will be how the Tories neutralise this threat. Given that the nature of Ukip’s support base means that attacking them would be to attack traditional Tory voters, something more subtle is required.

David Cameron may have previously ruled out a pact, but as we get closer to the election, he may well come under pressure to do deals in individual seats – especially if he remains some way off the 40 per cent needed to win an overall majority. Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg has suggested something similar to what Labour and the Liberal Democrats did in 1997 – a secret deal which saw them campaign gently in seats they couldn’t win, in a bid to help the other party with a view to a post-election pact that never happened because Labour did too well.

One thing is clear. Rather than relying on Ukip pushing the self-destruct button, it is time that the Conservatives started making plans for Nigel.