Opinion: Independence Party sparks Tory panic

When Tony Blair made his dramatic U-turn over a referendum on the European constitution, he was slated in much of the media - though not in this column. For me it was a case of short-term pain for long-term gain.

The gain, though, has come quicker than expected. It looks like the story of the 10 June elections will be how the UK Independence Party spoilt the Tories' day.

UKIP has emerged from nowhere to hit poll ratings of up to 18 per cent, with the Tories seemingly losing ground.

None of this has happened by accident. UKIP has had some of the best PR advice money can buy and, in the case of Max Clifford, reportedly for free - it was Clifford who promoted the little old lady who couldn't afford her council tax.

The scam worked until it emerged the pensioner had trousered £10,000 from the Daily Mail and was a member of UKIP. Even better advice, though, has come from Bill Clinton's former strategist Dick Morris. He told the party that, with an anti-EU message, it could pick up votes through simple self-promotion.

How right he seems to have been.

All parties know that celebs don't really win you votes, but if no one has heard of you, even someone like Robert Kilroy-Silk is an asset. In fact, it positively helps if your celebs are off the wall or, like Joan Collins, someone who happily admits they have never voted.

If things weren't bad enough for the Conservatives, they soon got worse with the well-planned defection of some its lords to UKIP - and the Tories panicked. The last thing they should be doing is giving any publicity to UKIP, but by taking away the Tory whip from the offending lords, they gave more coverage to the publicity-hungry party. They should have ignored the noble peers.

'Howard tries to halt desertions over Europe' was hardly the sort of banner headline the Conservatives wanted in The Daily Telegraph. Worse still was 'Tories are rattled by growing support for UKIP' in The Times.

There was one small paragraph in the latter paper's report that stood out. It said that Michael Howard would call for the EU to be 'doing less but doing it better'.

'Doing less better' was the slogan adopted by the Labour leader in Scotland, Jack McConnell. He has faced a torrid time in the media for his supposed 'lack of ambition', but it won't be half as torrid a time as the one the Tories will face if they fail to do well in the forthcoming elections.

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