Until last week, when its major donor switched loyalties to the Conservative Party, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) was enjoying a rollicking good 2004. The party, which advocates withdrawal from the European Union, quadrupled its stock of MEPs to 12 in June's European elections and has seen membership more than double to 26,000 in the past year. Public recognition of UKIP has rocketed from four per cent to 75 per cent in the same period, according to the party's own research.
But last week, Yorkshire property millionaire Paul Sykes, who has reportedly spent £6m funding UKIP, decided to switch allegiance to the Tories.
In one commentator's words, UKIP - whose party leader is the little-known former Tory MP Roger Knapman - has been plunged into 'disarray'.
Sykes's switch followed its party conference where Robert Kilroy-Silk, the former daytime TV host who is by far UKIP's most visible figure, urged the party to 'kill' the Tories as a political force.
A colourful past
From a PR perspective, UKIP has a colourful past. Max Clifford promoted the party at the European elections and American Dick Morris, the former Bill Clinton strategist, continues to advise UKIP on PR strategy.
UKIP's celebrity-endorsement quota will ensure the headlines continue to come: Joan Collins is a supporter, as is ex-cricketer Geoff Boycott, while the likes of disgraced ex-Tory minister Jonathan Aitken and former TV chef Rusty Lee may stand for UKIP in next year's general election.
Formed in 1993, UKIP was overshadowed by Sir James Goldsmith's better-funded Referendum Party. After Goldsmith's death in 1997, many of the party's backers switched their support to UKIP. In 1999, UKIP got three MEPs elected and the party has attracted legions of devotees to campaign for its straightforward brand of nationalism.
The reality of UKIP's PR operation is at odds with what one might expect from a party that fielded as many as 434 candidates in the 2001 general election - and is looking to field more than 600 next year. UKIP campaign chairman Nigel Farage pronounced in June that the party wants to be a 'genuine mass movement'. In short, its core comms function consists of two blokes above a shop in Dartford. The New Labour war room circa 1997 it isn't.
UKIP's chief spokesman is Mark Croucher, a former IT worker and barman, who joined the party after freelancing for its 2001 general election campaign. Croucher ('an Old Labour man, myself!') mans the phones alongside Quentin Williamson, another Kent-based activist recruited full time earlier this year.
UKIP also has a press officer in Brussels, Aurelie LaLoux, and four regional PROs, which include Clive Page, a former Tyne-Tees TV producer who handles media relations in the North-East and Scotland. In PR terms, the party is 'always, to a certain extent, playing catch-up', admits Croucher, adding: 'We probably sound like a make-it-up-as-you-go-along organisation - that's not a million miles from the truth, and we're not ashamed of that.'
Whereas most political parties have complex manifestos to promote, UKIP supporters can rally round its simple message - withdrawal from the EU.
Former Conservative Party comms director Paul Baverstock, now corporate MD at PR firm Ketchum, is sceptical about UKIP's potential longevity but says its message 'is delivered without compromise - and the people delivering that message are seen to be authentic'. Baverstock adds: 'They deal in certainties whereas politics is usually about ambiguities. Their position is un-spinnable - they are black and white.'
UKIP's genesis as a single-issue party presents a 'perennial problem' as regards getting people to take its views on domestic policies such as hospitals or schools seriously, concedes Croucher. He says that when UKIP talks domestic policy 'we try not to be like politicians about it', claiming this adds to the party's appeal.
Fleishman-Hillard executive V-P and senior partner Kevin Bell counsels, though, that UKIP should not diversify its message onto domestic policy: 'It should keep its message concise and keep it to Europe.'
UKIP's promotional activity has been celebrity-led and 2,000 billboard ads were put up nationwide in advance of the June elections ('market penetration was huge, you still see them in fields,' says Croucher).
Mass leafleting and rousing potential support by telesales marketing have been deployed, while other publicity bids included a stunt prior to the Euro elections, when a flotilla of UKIP boats, decorated with posters saying 'Say "no" to European Union' sailed down the Thames. No doubt more similar stunts are planned - but will they win votes?
Media Intelligence Partners MD Nick Wood, formerly media director of the Conservative Party, describes UKIP as 'totally chaotic'. Wood describes Kilroy-Silk's statement that he wanted to 'kill' the Tories as lunacy, saying: 'Given that maybe 50 per cent of UKIP supporters are disaffected Conservatives, saying that sort of thing will jeopardise its chances.'
Fishburn Hedges head of public affairs Graham McMillan agrees, describing Kilroy-Silk's outburst as 'dumb politics', adding: 'They have a dreadful leadership problem.'
The Conservative Party itself is ostensibly dismissive of UKIP. A spokesman says: 'They have a very simple message but I don't think their success could be repeated in a general election.
'In a general election you are voting for a PM and a government - in Euro elections and by-elections, you are more likely to get protest votes, such as for UKIP,' adds the spokesman, saying: 'Europe won't be high up people's list of concerns in the general election.'
There is a consensus that UKIP will go the same way as the Referendum Party. Hill & Knowlton public affairs MD Tim Fallon believes UKIP is 'not a serious force to be reckoned with', adding that it is doing nothing more than 'making the most of the moment'.
With Kilroy-Silk as the figurehead and the likes of Morris and Clifford willing to lend a hand - not to mention the intrinsic headline-generating capacity of the party's potential general election candidates - UKIP will continue to make headlines.
Most believe the party is unlikely to become a permanent fixture in British politics. But UKIP's potential to influence debate, and cause headaches for the main parties, should not be underestimated.
UKIP'S PRESS CONTACTS
- National and Kent: Mark Croucher and Quentin Williamson
- North-East England and Scotland: Clive Page
- South West: John Kelly and Mark Daniel
- Eastern: Stuart Gulleford
- Brussels: Aurelie LaLoux