Anti-UKIP Rhetoric Feeds Bounce in Farage Popularity

Prime Minister David Cameron toned down his party’s rhetoric against the U.K. Independence Party, as polling showed the attacks gave UKIP a popularity boost in the run-up to local elections tomorrow.

More than 2,300 seats will be contested in 34 local authorities across England and Wales in a mid-term test for Cameron. The premier’s Tories stepped up attacks last week on UKIP, which campaigns for withdrawal from the European Union and has been eating into Conservative support. UKIP leader Nigel Farage accused the Tories of trawling through social-networking sites to uncover bad behavior by UKIP candidates in what he called a “smear campaign.”

Polling company ComRes Ltd. put two sets of questions to voters last week. After the first round of polling on April 24-26, support for UKIP was at 19 percent. Farage’s party then rose to 24 percent in the second wave of polling on April 26-28 after the Tory attacks, putting it temporarily ahead of the main opposition Labour Party.

“Tempting though it is to throw the kitchen sink at your political opponents, this highlights the danger of offering them the publicity and credibility to win votes when you are desperate to win,” ComRes Chairman Andrew Hawkins said of the Tories in a telephone interview today. “In this case it seems to have backfired badly.”

In 2006, Cameron called UKIP a party of “closet racists.” On April 28, as the second wave of polling by ComRes was under way, Ken Clarke, a Tory minister without portfolio and former chancellor of the exchequer, called UKIP a “collection of clowns.”

‘Very Nasty’

The day after Clarke’s attack, Farage told ITV News the comments were “very rude and very nasty and I have a feeling that’s going to backfire.”

Asked to give his opinion of UKIP today, Cameron told ITV’s “Daybreak” program, “I’m not calling anybody anything,” characterizing the elections as a choice between Labour and the Tories.

Even if Cameron is urging the electorate to decide between his stewardship of the economy and Labour’s proposals to ease austerity, other policy decisions are playing in voters’ minds. UKIP is capitalizing on matters that have irked Tory traditionalists, such as giving gay people the right to marry.

Tory Foreign Secretary William Hague dismissed UKIP today as a “fringe party.” Asked if their members are “clowns,” he told the BBC’s “Today” radio program that it’s “not my style to use those particular terms. But I think when you look at the financial commitments you can see why a former chancellor thinks they have a clown-like aspect. I think we can put it that way.”

An analysis by John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, found 16 percent of those who voted Conservative in the 2010 general election and who currently have a party preference would now vote UKIP.

Farage’s “support base is predicated on both protest votes and disgruntled Tory identifiers,” Hawkins said.

ComRes interviewed 1,502 adults in areas of England where local elections are taking place on May 2 in its second round of polling. No margin of error was specified.

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