Anti-EU party says PM faces "political earthquake"

LONDON Fri May 4, 2012 5:48pm BST

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LONDON (Reuters) - The leader of Britain's biggest anti-European Union party said on Friday his best-ever local election result was the first tremor of a political earthquake that would tear out a crucial chunk of the ruling Conservative Party's electoral support.

Nigel Farage, leader of the small UK Independence Party (UKIP) and known for his grandiloquent gestures, assumed a cool yet buoyant demeanour after local elections dealt a drubbing to David Cameron's Conservatives and rattled lawmakers eyeing 2015 national elections. Time, he felt, was on his side.

By enticing droves of disaffected voters away from the prime minister's party, Conservatives fear Farage will split the right-wing vote in 2015, wiping out any chance of Cameron securing an outright majority.

"What they're scared of is that this trickle of support that has come to UKIP could turn into a flood," a dapper and enthusiastic Farage told Reuters, balancing an umbrella against a table in an empty cafe below Westminster's Millbank television studios.

An aide passed the latest results to the former commodities broker, scrawled hastily on a scrap of paper.

They showed broad gains across England - up five percentage points to around 13 percent of the vote where UKIP candidates are standing, compared to last year's local polls.

"The real danger for the Tory party (Conservatives) is not the number of Tories that are now voting for us, it's the number of Tory voters that agree with us, not just on Europe but on a raft of issues," he said with relish, in between checking a flurry of text messages.

UKIP, which wants to take Britain out of the EU, says voters are sick of an out-of-touch political elite and want a new breed of leaders to stem immigration and free Britain from the shackles of the European Union.

Their gains are increasing pressure on Cameron from within his own party to shift his electoral strategy rightwards away from the centre ground, a step Cameron's supporters say would be electoral madness and sour his relations with his coalition partners, the EU-friendly Liberal Democrats.

BRITAIN'S BILLY GRAHAM

But Farage, a persuasive public speaker who calls himself "the Billy Graham of the euro sceptic movement" after the U.S. evangelist, said UKIP can win the next European parliamentary elections in 2014.

That result would make Cameron's "knees go wobbly", he quipped with a smile.

"My goal is to try to produce an earthquake in British politics - winning it would be an earthquake," said Farage, who is married to a German national.

UKIP has 12 seats out of Britain's allocation of 78 in the European parliament where Farage has made a name for himself across the continent for scathing and, for some tastes, plain insulting speeches against the European Union and its officials.

He aroused particular indignation with acid public remarks to European Council President Herman van Rompuy.

"We were told that when we had a president we'd see a giant global political figure, the man would be the political leader for 500 million people...Well, I'm afraid, what we got was you.

"I don't want to be rude, but really, you have the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk. The question I want to ask … is who are you?" he said.

Still tiny compared to the Conservative or Labour parties, UKIP's danger for the Conservatives lies in its potential to stoke discord within Cameron's party over Europe, the most divisive issue in British politics.

Cameron, keen to avoid the party strife over Europe that sank the careers of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, has grappled with taming his anti-EU party members who bridle at the power-sharing alliance with the Liberal Democrats.

UKIP attracted more than 900,000 voters - about three percent of the total - in the 2010 parliamentary election - but, under the quirks of Britain's electoral system, failed to win any seats, while others with smaller shares marched into parliament.

Farage, 48, has set his sights on building support for the party beyond its natural home on the right of British politics and dismissed accusations that his policies overlap with those of the far-right.

Longer term, UKIP has ambitions of real influence in Britain's parliament as a broad-based "common sense" party of traditional values that have been squeezed out of current policy, such as much tougher immigration rules.

"There are millions of old Labour voters out there, patriotic to their finger tips, and we're a patriotic party, but we spell that with a small p," he said, arguing that a social democrat hegemony in Westminster has alienated swathes of voters and snuffed out old-fashioned political debate.

"The rich kids have taken over. The rich college kids are now running Britain and your ordinary person out there that works damned hard knows it."

PLANE CRASH

After walking away from the Conservatives in 1992 to form UKIP in protest against the 1992 signing of the Maastricht Treaty on economic union, Farage has staged a remarkable comeback since surviving a plane crash two years ago.

On the morning of Britain's May 2010 election, the light plane he was using to fly a campaign banner fell out of the sky and smashed to pieces in a field.

Suffering broken ribs and a punctured lung, he still struggles with the after-effects of his injuries.

But aides say that scrape with death transformed Farage, inspiring his party's sustained rise to acceptability across the provinces where public attitudes can differ radically from those preached by mainstream politicians in London.

"It just made me think how bloody lucky I was," Farage said, mellowing from his machine-gun sales pitch. "It's a miracle how I am here today, sitting here talking to you. I've come back ... even more determined than I was before."

(Editing by Guy Faulconbridge)

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