Supporters of Nigel Farage's United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) are in buoyant mood heading into tomorrow's local Government elections. The contests, primarily for County Council seats in Conservative-dominated suburban and rural areas are likely to show UKIP eclipsing the Liberal Democrats in terms of national vote share and picking up anywhere between 50 and 250 seats (depending on who you read).
This is all fine but there's an argument that this year and possibly next year's European Parliamentary elections will mark the highwater for UKIP and that its decline is not only certain but irreversible.
UKIP has ridden a wave of anti-politics sentiment that often comes to the fore when a Conservative Government takes office after a long period of Labour Government. The huge financial mess left behind by the previous Government needs to be sorted out and that means taking unpopular decisions (cuts primarily though also tax rises). Everyone has their own idea of what should and shouldn't be cut and as Stodge's third law of Politics states - "you can't please all of the people all of the time but you only need to please them in the three months before the election".
Taking unpopular and (widely perceived as) vindicative or ill-judged policies does wonders for a governing party's popularity and with the principal Opposition still scarred by their experience in Government, it's fertile ground for a protest party. Traditionally, the Liberals and Liberal Democrats have filled that role - in 1972-73, 1981-82 and 1993-94, they were the main beneficiaries of anti-Government protest voting. In the equivalent County Council elections in 1993, the Liberal Democrats won nearly 400 seats, including 37 in Devon and took control of Somerset and Cornwall.
Even in Surrey, a 36-seat Conservative majority was wiped out. The Conservatives lost nearly 500 seats, the first of a series of electoral routs culminating in the disastrous 1997 General Election defeat by which time Tony Blair was Labour leader and had convinced millions of Conservative voters (in a way Neil Kinnock or even John Smith could never have) that the Labour Party was a non-socialist party of the centre or centre-left for whom the affluent could vote in safety.
Twenty years on, the Liberal Democrats are in Government and are part of the problem and UKIP has emerged as the new party of protest. It performed well in Eastleigh and has made some by-election gains and regularly outpolls the Liberal Democrats in opinion polls. Until now, UKIP has mainly won Councillors through defections, mainly from the Conservatives, but tomorrow could see dozens of new UKIP Councillors elected.
Is this a breakthrough - is there a new third party in business? Alas, I suspect, no.
Winning Council seats when the winds are in your favour is easy. At the moment, the tide is with Nigel Farage and UKIP but nothing lasts forever and he has not a single Westminster MP. In 2015, UKIP cannot campaign as a party with a serious chance of being in Government except as a Coalition partner but those who vote UKIP tomorrow will be mercilessly courted by the Conservative and Labour parties over the next two years.
I don't doubt UKIP will perform well in a few seats on May 7th 2015 and will have an influence in the formation of the next Government but without a single MP (short of a defection). The problem for UKIP is that as they take voters primarily from the Conservatives, they provide an opportunity not only for the Liberal Democrats to hold firm in the south but for Labour to sweep down from the north and midlands. Indeed, it's more than possible that UKIP votes in 2015 will do nothing more than build Ed Milliband and Labour's majority.
That's the dilemma UKIP and its supporters face, the dark clouds that hangs over them. IF they do well enough to make a difference in 2015, they will find themselves in a very different political landscape facing five years of a Labour Government which isn't interested in them and facing a vengeful Conservative Party in Opposition. The gains they make tomorrow will be a lot harder to defend in 2017.
Let's assume that somehow the Conservatives win in 2015. Farage has forced David Cameron into a pleadge on an In/Out Referendum. Let's say the referendum happens and we vote to stay in the EU - one of UKIP's major reasons for existing will disappear and much of its support with it. If we vote No, why will we need UKIP at all? The main parties will, as they have always done, adapt to the result and it may well be that some of UKIP's current policies will become the new post-EU mainstream. It's hard to know.
Farage has thrived on discontent with Government policy, disillusionment with the EU and dissatisfaction over immigration yet he is nowhere near Government and while I'm convinced Ed Milliband wouldn't deal with him even if he did win enough seats to be worth dealing with, I'm pretty sure David Cameron won't. Indeed, all the evidence is that a strong UKIP plays much better for Labour than for the Conservatives.
I suspect than that Ed Milliband won't be too concerned if Nigel Farage has a good night - local elections have a certain value but aren't usually decisive in their own right. It serves Labour to have the Conservatives bicker over their approach to UKIP and its supporters as he knows that divided parties rarely do well in public esteem.
It's reported that Churchill once said "if Auchinleck loses Egypt, blood will flow." David Cameron may well paraphrase "if Hodge loses Surrey, blood will flow".
I suspect Hodge will survive - I'm sure the Conservative Party will survive. I'm much less certain UKIP will still be a serious political force when these seats are contested in 2017.