Send in the clowns? They're already here

Last year, I went to UKIP's local election campaign launch. It was in the basement of a restaurant in Covent Garden. Chairs were stacked up in the corner, staff buzzed around preparing for the lunch crowd. Nigel Farage arrived in a black cab, had a quick fag outside, and spoke to about five or six reporters, and maybe twice as many supporters.

None of the reporters had questions -- we all had one-to-one interviews arranged. But the supporters had lots of questions. Well, one actually, repeated about seven different ways, put best by a very angry man with a red face and a white beard: "When are we going to get out of BLOODY EUROPE?"

I would never have believed that a year later, Nigel Farage could be challenging Alex Salmond for the title of Britain's most skilled politician.

Yet, here we are. The clowns of a week ago are now a political force worthy of respect, whose supporters must be listened to.

Mr Farage views this as a revolutionary moment. And it is. But probably not for him.

We need a little perspective. UKIP got around a-quarter of the votes, on around a one-third turnout. That equates to 7.5% of the UK electorate.

You have to presume the average UKIP supporter was pretty motivated to vote on Thursday. And if the turnout is doubled at the 2015 General Election, it's hard to see how UKIP's share would hold up.

UKIP is not the third force in British politics, or even the fourth. It's a highly successful pressure group, which has managed to become the de facto home for protest votes now that the Liberal Democrats are in Government.

Remember the SDP? They were going to shake up British politics and smash the two-party system. In alliance with the Liberals, they got more than 50% in one opinion poll in late 1981. And eighteen months later, won 23 seats at the General Election.

By splitting the anti-Thatcher vote, the SDP probably helped to secure the Conservatives' landslide win that year.

UKIP's success will similarly bring all kinds of unintended consequences. It could even be good news for the Liberal Democrats.

Nick Clegg expected to lose a wave of southern marginals to the Conservatives in 2015, as traditional Labour voters desert the party they'd backed in 2010, mistakenly hoping to keep the Tories out.

But if a significant chunk of Tory supporters switch to UKIP, that could be enough for a dozen or so Lib Dems to hang on.

That's not David Cameron's only headache. He's running out of time to figure out how to appeal to UKIP voters -- with views to the right of mainstream Conservatism -- without scaring away centre-ground Tories who could easily move over to Labour.

It is perhaps no longer appropriate to dismiss UKIP as clowns or fruitcakes. The party's success on Thursday will shift the tone of the political debate ahead of the 2015 election.

Their surge in support suggests a significant proportion of voters are angry, either about specific things like immigration, or just angry at politicians in general.

Any party choosing to ignore that risks losing even more support. But every other mid-term shock has fizzled out by the time the "proper" election comes around.

And any party whose supporters feel the need to repeatedly state "I'm not a racist, but…" still has an image problem.

What I learned from Margaret Thatcher

To some extent, we’ve all been shaped by Margaret Thatcher.

Growing up in an era where sexism was still common, I never imagined there were unsuitable jobs for a woman. After all, a woman was running the country.

But I also grew up in the north-west of England, where resentment towards Margaret Thatcher was deep, and remains more than two decades on.

While supporters left flowers on her doorstep, opponents danced in the streets in Brixton and Glasgow.

Reactions to the death of Britain’s last truly ideological political leader.

Thatcher fundamentally believed Britain was on the wrong track, and committed herself to massive changes she thought essential.

For those who gained from this new order, the rewards could be extraordinary. Those left behind often felt entirely without hope.

Margaret Thatcher was an achiever, and at times it seemed she simply couldn't understand why everyone didn't do the same. Tributes have spoken of an extraordinary capacity for individual kindness, but critics would say they saw little evidence in her years in Downing Street.

Yet despite the brutal recession of the early eighties, the miner’s strike and eleven  divisive years, no Government since Thatcher has sought to undo the bulk of her reforms.

Her most significant legacy remains to this day -- she dragged British politics to the right. David Cameron was the “heir to Blair”, but Tony Blair learned a lot from watching Margaret Thatcher -- she, after all, called New Labour “her greatest legacy”.

Her biggest and often most controversial policies, from widening home ownership to privatisation, are now accepted across mainstream politics.

Now Labour wrestles with how to oppose benefit reform, while acknowledging many of their own voters support a crack-down.

Yet Thatcher's views on Europe seemed unchanged from those of a wartime schoolgirl, and created divisions in her party that remain to this day. The poll tax was the clearest sign that her political skills had deserted her. And her failure to step down before her own MPs rose up against her not only soured the rest of her life, but created anger and resentment that helped keep the Conservatives out of office for thirteen years.

As even her harshest critics concede, you knew what Margaret Thatcher stood for.  She inspired as many people to actively oppose her as support her.

Adore or abhor, you couldn’t ignore Thatcher. A quality rarely present in today's political class.

Cameron's gay marriage gamble

For a party that believes in keeping the state out of people's private lives, the Conservatives get awfully excited about gay marriage.

You'd think what happens in the bedroom is precisely the kind of thing the Tories would view as a matter of private morality.

But for many older Tories, today's vote on gay marriage is a sign of how modern life is starting to leave them behind.

Fifty years ago, homosexuality was illegal, now -- barring a sudden capitulation by Downing Street -- marriage will be "equalised" (to use the kind of language that so angers David Cameron's critics.)

And they are certainly angry. David Burrowes, the Conservative backbencher leading the Commons revolt, says the policy is "dangerous", though it's not clear exactly what danger married homosexuals present.

More than half the parliamentary Conservative party could either vote against gay marriage, or abstain.

The problem is that this is as much a matter of principle for the Prime Minister as it is for those who oppose him.

Those close to David Cameron say he really believes in gay marriage, and in fact thinks it's a rather Conservative idea -- a couple making a legal commitment to each other.

He feels it's down to his government to resolve the issue, even if that damages his relations with many grassroots Tories.

The David Cameron of 2005 would have relished this fight -- a chance to make a public display of how far his party has travelled.

He would have done so, relatively confident that come 2015, those disgruntled Tories would still support him, as they had nowhere else to go.

Return to 2013, though, and you quickly realise the Prime Minister is taking a significant gamble.

Those alienated Tories, voters and activists, could march towards UKIP. Their defection, should it happen, would make the task of winning the 2015 election even harder.

But Cameron is trapped. If he abandons the gay marriage vote, he'll lose the potential support of younger, metropolitan voters. The kind who, like Cameron, think it's ludicrous this issue hasn't already been resolved. The kind who, ultimately, may well decide the next election.

Gay marriage will be passed by the Commons. But David Cameron will be relying on Labour votes as much as his Lib Dem coalition partners. And most of the right-wing goodwill he earned with his EU referendum pledge will disappear.

Principal, as usual, comes at a price.