Following its stunning victory in the European elections, Britain’s anti-EU party is targeting a first parliamentary seat, starting with Thursday’s by-election in central England.
The prospect of a UKIP victory in the market town of Newark is sowing panic among the main parties, particularly Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives, who have held the seat since 2001.
The Tories fear their voter base is being eroded by the eurosceptic and anti-immigration rhetoric of the United Kingdom Independence Party and its charismatic leader Nigel Farage.
“Him again!” jokes market trader Michael Lieber after hearing that Cameron was making another visit.
Another enterprising market trader offered campaign-weary locals eggs for 50 pence each, “for throwing at a politician”.
It is the fourth time in less than a year that Cameron has visited the Nottinghamshire town to support Robert Jenrick, the 32-year-old Conservative candidate.
“I think it’s unprecedented. They are really, really scared,” said Farage, who watched the procession of Conservative politicians sent to campaign for the seat with amusement.
For Cameron’s centre-right party, the prospect of defeat is an unthinkable horror which it fears could unleash a wider backlash of populist anger.
But UKIP accepts victory in Newark will be harder to secure than topping last week’s European vote.
“If last Sunday was an earthquake, UKIP winning here on Thursday would be a Krakatoa,” Farage told AFP, laughing aloud at his own joke.
“Once we win that first seat in Westminster, the whole game changes,” added the 50-year-old, who has predicted his party will win “at least 30 seats” at next year’s general election.
In Newark — scene of bloody 17th-century civil war between royalists and parliamentarians — UKIP trails the Conservatives by at least eight points, according to latest polls, but is ahead of the main opposition Labour Party.
“All the by-election polls under-estimate us,” scoffed Farage in nearby Southwell as he left the Saracen’s Head, the inn where king Charles I spent his last night as a free man in 1646.
Farage is having lunch with UKIP candidate Roger Helmer, the moustachioed Conservative defector who has served in the European Parliament since 1999.
“In my political career, I have never seen such enthusiasm,” the 70-year-old said of the campaign.
Helmer has been no stranger to controversy over the years due to remarks about homosexuals, rapists and rioters — the latter, he said, should be “shot on sight”.
UKIP has previously enjoyed success on the European stage but has failed to translate that into domestic support. The party saw its vote slump from 16 percent at the 2009 European elections to three percent in the 2010 general election.
“This time is different,” insists Anthony Lumb, a former coal miner and disgruntled Labour voter, who points to the proximity of the May 2015 general election and the anger felt towards the main parties.
For him, leaving the European Union is “THE priority”, he stresses.
“We are not against immigration but we want to control it ourselves,” he explains.
Outside the by-election, life is relatively calm in the historic riverside town, which boasts a castle and sits outside Sherwood Forest, the stomping ground of legendary outlaw Robin Hood.
Local unemployment runs at just two percent, crime rates are below the national average and life is comfortable in a town made up of 94 percent “white British” people, according to the latest census in 2011.
Even Helmer admits to having been surprised when knocking on doors to find out how “significant” the issue of immigration was.
Although the town hosted the Polish air force during World War II, locals’ concerns are mostly directed towards immigrants from eastern Europe. General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the Polish prime minister and armed forces chief of the time, was buried there.
But what infuriates voters more, Helmer tells AFP, is that the London elite — epitomised by his opponent Jenrick — have attempted to parachute in a candidate with a “£2 million house opposite (the palace of) Westminster” and no political experience.
Market trader Lieber thinks “all they deserve is a stone thrown at them”.
“Nobody ever resigns when they do something wrong, and they don’t look after couples unless they are gay couples,” he adds. “They are all telling lies.”
It is this anger towards career politicians that Farage, who seems to be most at home in the pub, has harnessed.
“Nigel Farage has a very good understanding of the working world,” says Lumb. “He speaks like real people, he says what many people think.”