Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Phil Horby: UKIP enters Westminster

Political Editor Phil Hornby blogs from parliament.

UKIP are celebrating today - they have their first MP at Westminster. And I am partly responsible.

Castle Point MP Bob Spink (pictured right) left the Tory party last month, and said he would continue in the Commons as an Independent Conservative. But behind the scenes, UKIP leader and South East MEP Nigel Farage was busy wooing Mr Spink, and this morning the defection was announced at a news conference held in one of the Commons' old committee rooms.

And yes, unwittingly, I am the man who brought them together. In 2003, the House of Commons Press Gallery held a dinner to celebrate its bicentenary. I invited a group of parliamentarians, from all different parties, to celebrate with us. Among them were Messrs Farage and Spink, who, purely by chance, were seated next to each other. They’d never met before in their lives. Today Mr Farage told us that was the moment his friendship with Bob Spink began, and today, five years later, we saw the result.

It's a coup for UKIP, and really the only way they can expect to get representation at Westminster. The chances of UKIP actually winning a parliamentary seat under the first-past-the-post system are as remote as ever.

It's a different matter in the European Parliament, of course. Proportional representation means smaller parties have a much better chance of being elected. It was the Meridian region which elected the first ever UKIP MEPs in 1999, and the Meridian region which returned the largest number in 2004.

Their most high-profile MEP then was elected in the East Midlands - none other than Robert Kilroy Silk, the former Labour MP and TV presenter. His victory gave UKIP fabulous publicity at the time, although the love affair was short-lived and Kilroy Silk soon fell out with just about everyone in UKIP and ended up setting up his own political party in a blaze of publicity. He was going to transform the system with a brand new kind of honest politics, he told us all. But it didn't happen, of course. Hands up anyone who can remember what his party was even called?

It's unlikely Bob Spink will go his own way anytime soon, but UKIP's enemies - and there are lots of them - are already predicting a disastrous clash of egos between Messrs Spink and Farage.

Mr Farage seemed remarkably relaxed about everything when I spoke to him today - just delighted at last to have a UKIP presence on the Commons green benches.

And people underestimate UKIP at their peril. In the early days, they were dismissed by many critics as, at best, an irrelevance, and, at worst, an undisciplined bunch of nutters. Now they have representation in the European Parliament (where, incidentally they outnumber the UK Greens 9 - 2), the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

As for Bob Spink, he faced the inevitable question today: The people of Castle Point voted you in as a Conservative MP, so now you've changed parties, why not stand down and fight a by-election? To which he gave the inevitable response: The people of Castle Point didn't vote for the Conservative Party in 2005, they voted for Bob Spink.

Well, that's as may be. The Conservatives say you could hear the popping of champagne corks at their party HQ this morning. In other words, good riddance. And the Tories can afford to be fairly unruffled by a UKIP defection at the moment. After all, it's the economy, not Europe, which is dominating politics. Nevertheless, recent history tells us that if UKIP get, say, 1000 votes in a marginal seat in a general election, that can be the difference between victory and defeat.

The Meridian region has the most marginal seats in the country - especially in Kent and Bob Spink's Essex. To reduce the impact of UKIP at the next election, the Conservatives must do their best to neutralise Europe as an issue. UKIP's plan is the exact opposite, and Mr Farage, with his new MP Mr Spink, will be pulling out all the stops between now and polling day.

Oh, and congratulations if you remembered the name of Robert Kilroy Silk's party - Veritas!
Watch Phil Hornby's lunchtime report on Bob Spink here.

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