According to Simon Jenkins, "The UK Independence party is mid-term political froth, here today and blown away tomorrow". This judgement came in a typically overheated piece on Nigel Lawson's Euro-exit bombshell (as the sub-editors might put it). Lawson is batting for The City, and specifically warning Cameron not to give way on tighter regulation of financial services. This, like Jenkins own interpretation, is an example of metropolitan bias. According to Jenkins, "Lawson may not have made Ukip respectable but he has put its central plank into serious play". As any number of analyses should have made clear by now, Europe is actually a relatively minor issue for UKIP supporters. It should also be emphasised that disaffection with the EU is essentially a matter of democracy, not the interests of Money Capital or simple xenophobia.
The reason why UKIP is more than just froth can be seen in the regional distribution of the seats the party won in the recent county council elections. Where UKIP did best was in the economically stressed areas of Lincolnshire and Kent, agriculture and port-dominated counties that have seen both job losses and high-profile Eastern European immigration in recent years. Some might focus on the latter as the defining characteristic, but it's the economic stress that looks more significant. Looked at on the map, UKIP's "heartland" looks like the Anglo-Saxon territories around the middle of the 6th century, before the expansion into Mercia and Northumbria. This might appear like an amusing coincidence, but I think it actually highlights some important points about the nature of UKIP's support and thus their prospects.
First, they are not obviously a Home Counties party, despite the assumption that they represent a "natural Conservative" insurgency, i.e. the Tebbit tendency. The Tories remain much the stronger party of the right in the immediate vicinity of London, notably Surrey, Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire (the higher UKIP vote in Buckinghamshire looks to have been boosted by opposition to HS2). UKIP's support in the South East is quite peripheral, hugging the more economically marginal coastal counties. They look like a party that will do well in seaside towns rather than the commuter belt (and who could deny that Nigel Farage looks like the sort of chap you'd bump into at Brighton Racecourse). This reflects the dominant influence of the Great Wen, both in terms of a metropolitan condescension to UKIP's Little Englander vibe and (more significantly) a realisation that London as a whole could not thrive outside the EU, regardless of the piratical opportunities this might open up for The City. There are a lot more corporate accountants and lawyers in the Surrey stockbroker belt than actual stockbrokers.
Second, contrary to the media claims that the Kippers took votes off all parties, it is clear that Labour suffered the least, and not just because their strongholds in the metropolitan areas were not up for election this time round. If UKIP are going to attract disaffected working class voters inclined to blame immigrants for their economic woes, they'll just be hoovering up the relatively small number of votes that have hitherto gone to the BNP and EDL. That's not to say that they can't do well in the North on a broader agenda, but the evidence from Lancashire and Durham is that they are not doing so at present. I doubt they will thrive beyond the Severn-Humber line. Voters are parochial, and increasingly anti-metropolitan, which means that an obvious Southern toff like Farage (who to most people in the North does not appear readily distinguishable from George Osborne) isn't going to attract many votes in Burnley, though he might pick up a few in Harrogate. UKIP policies, insofar as they can be gleaned, do not address regional imbalances, nor do they have any coherent plan for job creation. Tax cuts and quitting Europe (a visible benefactor in many depressed regions) does not look like a winning manifesto in Newcastle.
Third, the coastal bias reflects a disproportionate level of support among older voters. This perhaps explains the one exception to the Anglo-Saxon focus in terms of seats won, namely Cornwall, which I suspect may reflect support among retirees from elsewhere rather than a sudden upsurge in English nationalism. However, UKIP aren't picking up pensioner votes in particular. Indeed, the sweet spot appears to be people in their 50s and, to judge from the analysis of the Eastleigh Parliamentary by-election (see page 5) and other polling, the less well-off. This indicates that the party's appeal is to the economically vulnerable. It would be easy to paint the stereotypical UKIP voter as a small capitalist raging about EU red tape and smoking in pubs (that may be representative of party members), but the reality looks more like someone facing an impoverished retirement due to an inadequate pension, possibly with kids struggling to find a job, worried about future health and care costs, and with only a modest house (if that) as an asset. The EU and immigration are obviously lightning rods (and the latter more than the former), in the sense that very few people actually have a well-informed opinion on either. Both serve as handy offstage targets for a more fundamental, economic anxiety.
What I think this portends is that UKIP might scrape a few seats in the 2015 general election, possibly in depressed seaside or rural towns in the South and East, but they aren't going to cut a swathe through Tory ranks. What they will do is erode the Tory vote. The legacy of Thatcher has been the Conservative Party's retreat to England. The legacy of 2008 and the Eurozone crisis may be the further retreat towards the affluent hinterland of London. UKIP may do enough to split the conservative vote and let the LibDems through in some constituencies, but overall the tendency of UKIP to attract former LibDem votes as much as Tory ones, together with the disappointments of coalition, will surely produce a net loss for Clegg & co. In some marginal constituencies, a defection of working class Tories to UKIP could even let Labour in, though again Labour are vulnerable to some vote erosion by UKIP as well. Ultimately, it will be the party that offers the most credible hope in terms of economic renewal that will suffer least from the UKIP factor, not the party that promises an EU referendum.