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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 December 2006, 13:02 GMT
UKIP leader 'offered Tory seat'
By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

Nigel Farage
Nigel Farage wants to make UKIP more professional
Nigel Farage, the new leader of the UK Independence Party, has claimed he was offered a safe Conservative seat ahead of last year's general election.

Mr Farage, who is now trying to tempt Tory and Labour MPs and councillors to join UKIP, said he received a "strong approach" about a "very safe seat".

He told the BBC he rejected the offer because he could not join a party that went against his core beliefs.

The Tories said it was the first they had "heard of this bizarre claim".

UKIP, which wants the UK to leave the European Union, has 11 Euro MPs, but not Westminster MPs.

Mr Farage, elected UKIP leader in September, said: "There was a pretty strong approach made to me about a very safe seat that had come up, more or less at the last minute."

In the event, Mr Farage contested Labour marginal Thanet South for UKIP, coming fourth with 2,079 votes.

'Bizarre'

The arithmetic suggests those votes stopped the Conservative candidate, Mark MacGregor, from taking the seat from Labour's Stephen Ladyman. MacGregor failed to take the seat by just 667 votes.

Mr Farage, a Member of the European Parliament and former commodity broker, insists he was not tempted by the Conservatives' offer.

NIGEL FARAGE
Age: 42
Educated: Dulwich College, London
Job: MEP since 1999, commodity broker
Family: Married, four children
Hobbies: Fishing, military history, traditional pubs

"I would find it very difficult... having given up my career and so much for this cause - I could not put my shoulder behind a party that believed in almost the opposite even though, on a personal level, it would have been very cosy and very nice.

"I also believe we can affect far greater change from without the big parties, than from within them."

He declined to elaborate further, he said, to protect the Tory members concerned.

But he added: "This was a local approach but the leadership were not entirely unaware of it."

However when the claims were put to the Conservative Party HQ, a spokesman said: "It is probably significant that Mr Farage has given the most tenuous details of this story. Anybody who is not a member of the Conservative Party can not stand as a Conservative MP."

Former leader Michael Howard said it was "completely untrue" that he was aware of a seat being offered to Mr Farage.

Target

Mr Farage, who replaced former Tory MP Roger Knapman as UKIP leader, says he is on a mission to make the party more professional in its selection of candidates and more serious about winning power at a local level, where, he concedes, it is currently punching well below its weight.

In what could be seen as a case of gamekeeper-turned-poacher, he has written to 17,000 local councillors from the three main parties, urging them to jump ship with the message: "We are developing as a broadly based real party of opposition, the only one saying what most people think."

He has also, he reveals, been targeting the small band of MPs currently campaigning for Britain to leave the European Union.

"If a couple of serving members came over, it would make a hell of a difference. We are trying within the House of Commons and within the House of Lords to get this to happen.

"But I do understand, sometimes, why it doesn't. It is quite difficult as a sitting MP to take the huge risk of defection to UKIP and I totally understand and respect that.

"But what I would say to sitting members is this - thank goodness at least in this parliament we have got some MPs, both Labour and Tory, that are standing up and saying we would be better off outside the European Union."

The Better Off Out campaign was launched earlier this year by Tory MP Philip Davies, and has attracted support from other sitting Tory members, including Douglas Carswell, Philip Hollobone, Bob Spink, Ann Winterton, Sir Nicholas Winterton and Labour MP Austin Mitchell.

'Delighted'

Mr Farage is an enthusiastic supporter of Better Off Out and has said UKIP will not stand against candidates from other parties who support the campaign.

David Cameron
David Cameron has been in a war of words with UKIP

"These are not enemies of ours, they are friends of ours in the other parties and I am delighted that that voice is at last being heard in the Houses of Parliament," says Mr Farage.

Having spent a small fortune in a so-far unsuccessful campaign to land a seat at Westminster, the attraction for UKIP of persuading like-minded Tories or even Labour MPs to cross the floor is obvious.

"We have made it clear to several of them - at the point when they fear they can no longer bear to be with their own parties, we admire them as people of principle and we would be very happy to have them on board. It's as simple as that," says Mr Farage.

UKIP did not come close to winning a seat in the May 2005 poll, gaining just 2.2% of the vote, but it did well enough in some marginals to cost the Tories as many as 27 seats, according to some estimates.

However serious the offer before the last election, it is hard to see Mr Farage being offered a safe Conservative seat under David Cameron's leadership.

'Loonies'

Relations between the two hit a new low in April, when Mr Cameron dismissed UKIP members as "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists mostly".

Mr Farage took the "fruitcakes and loonies" jibe in his stride but he was less sanguine about the accusation of racism and considered legal action, until the party's lawyers advised against it.

"Counsel's opinion was that the only way we could get any redress is if we could prove that Cameron's outburst on LBC had materially done UKIP damage.

"Counsel's opinion was quite the reverse, that actually he had angered a lot of his own people who think and feel the way UKIP do and that they were more likely to vote UKIP next time around," he says.

'Opposition'

Despite all this apparent bad blood, Mr Farage is at pains to point out that UKIP is not "at war" with Mr Cameron's Conservatives.

"It's not my intention to have a dirty little fight with Cameron's Conservative Party. Absolutely not. It's pointless. I view the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour now as an amorphous mass. Indistinguishable from each other."

Mr Farage says he sees his party as "the only real voice of opposition in British politics today", speaking up for the "silent majority" ignored by the big three parties in their clamour to attract swing voters in the "centre ground".

But - and here he starts to sound not unlike Mr Cameron - he also wants UKIP to sound more positive in its message and to attract younger members.

And he wants to broaden the party's policy platform from its traditional focus on Europe to embrace areas such as immigration, taxation and individual liberty.

'Too simplistic'

He is even considering revamping UKIP's branding to stress the "independence" element of its name and - now, as he sees it, that the argument on keeping the pound has been won - he says it could be time to ditch its traditional pound-sign logo.

But he insists he is not simply out to target disaffected Tories with an appeal to traditional right wing values.

"Cameron has vacated this territory, so it seems like a no-brainer that UKIP is going after the Tory vote but actually that's too simplistic.

"If you ask me what is our main target for votes, I would tell you simply it's the nine million people that voted in 1992 and didn't vote in 2005. That is our main target vote. It is winning back into the electoral system people who have given up voting.

"A lot of the UKIP vote is people who have given up voting - not because they are apathetic. It's not apathy. It's antipathy towards the main parties."




SEE ALSO
Profile: Nigel Farage
12 Sep 06 |  Politics
UKIP needs to broaden appeal
12 Sep 06 |  Politics
Farage elected new UKIP leader
12 Sep 06 |  Politics
Profile: UK Independence Party
28 Jul 06 |  Politics

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