Britain's Ukip eyes more seats in European Parliament ahead of poll
United Kingdom Independence Party banks on anti-EU sentiment among voters worried too much power has been ceded to Europeans
Fruitcake-free and ready to roll: That was the message from the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) as it finished a two-day conference focused on winning more seats in the European Parliament.
Consider the irony. A party that wants to pull Britain out of the European Union, and fortify its borders against migrants from Europe, is seeking increased leverage in a parliament based in Belgium and France.
Ukip leader Nigel Farage, a politician happy to admit he is uncomfortable with the multitude of foreign languages heard on London's public transportation, sees May's vote as a prospect too rich to pass up.
"These elections, in many ways, will be an opportunity for us to tell the political class where to go," Farage told his followers on Saturday.
Ukip already has 13 members in the 766-seat European Parliament, with hopes of gaining more of Britain's 73 spots. The May 22 election comes roughly a year before Britain's House of Commons election, where Ukip has yet to win any seats.
Farage is banking on anti-EU and anti-immigrant sentiment among voters who believe that Britain has ceded too much power to European bureaucrats.
Citing new official figures showing that the number of migrants arriving in Britain has far exceeded targets set by the Conservative-led government, Farage predicted that the country's largest-ever "migratory wave" was still to come and said that Britain's three main political parties were doing nothing to prevent it.
Previous Ukip conferences have been overshadowed by off-message comments: the parliamentarian who described some women in the party as "sl*ts", or another who blamed the legalisation of gay marriage for causing Britain's epic flooding. This year's event proved gaffe-free.
The change has not gone unnoticed. Political analyst Ann Treneman wrote in The Times of London that the conference constituted "Ukip's first post-fruitcake" gathering. She made it sound as if the party was sailing into the mainstream.
The Daily Telegraph, seen as Conservative-friendly, used its lead editorial to say that events seemed to be boosting Farage at the expense of Prime Minister David Cameron, the Conservative leader. Under the headline "Cameron can't match Farage's simple message", the newspaper envisioned panic in British political circles should Ukip top the vote in May.
The Daily Telegraph said Cameron's hopes of renegotiating aspects of Britain's relationship with the EU, a cornerstone of his 2015 re-election strategy, suffered a blow when German leader Angela Merkel told British lawmakers recently that fundamental agreements would not be altered.
It said the latest migration figures supported Farage's case and described his message that "you cannot control your own borders and remain a member of the EU" as clear.
In 2006, Cameron dismissed Ukip as a collection of "fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists". But he appears to be taking the party more seriously as the 2015 vote looms. Seeking to steal Ukip's thunder, he has pledged to hold a 2017 referendum on Britain's EU membership if the Conservatives retain power.
Cameron's government has also introduced a series of bills to make it tougher for immigrants to access British welfare benefits. Payments for unemployment, housing and health care will be harder to get if the proposals become law. Some EU officials said some of the proposed new rules would be discriminatory and violate EU law.