But the Liberals, and their Lib Dem successors, did indeed win by-elections, as well as having an increasing presence at General Elections. It is this thought, as I described yesterday, that is not being allowed to enter as many right-leaning pundits approach panic mode over the UKIP performance in three by-elections on Thursday, in which they won no seats at all, despite favourable publicity.
And there was no more favourable publicity than that afforded UKIP by the Maily Telegraph, where editor Tony Gallagher – being talked about as a potential successor to the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre at the Daily Mail – appears to be telling the Tories that they must make their peace with Nigel “Thirsty” Farage and his motley rabble, or at least turn to the right pretty sharpish.
So Thursday’s paper carried an article of Ron Hopeful quality from Harry Wallop, which walloped absolutely nobody with its lame rhetorical question “Could this be UKIP’s day?”, because it couldn’t. Even with a Roma population of 3,500 in the Rotherham area, and therefore plenty of whipping boys on hand, and the fostering row, UKIP could not do what the old Liberals did in Orpington and Ripon.
Like the assembled hosts of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) over the US Presidential Election, the Telegraph’s hacks had substituted belief for reality: UKIP was going to win because they wanted it to. And even after the party came second, in a poll where less than 35% of the electorate turned out, there was almost universal approval of Farage and his pals as potential Tory soulmates.
Even before the result, Ed “Case” West was talking up the party’s prospects: “Tonight, Ukip have a chance to show the world they're more than just a protest vote for angry Tories”. And mere defeat didn’t stop the punditry, with Tim Stanley (who you can tell as he’s a doctor) proclaiming “After Rotherham, Ukip is now a national populist party – a magnet for anger at the British establishment”.
He was joined by Peter Mullen, aka Reverend Batshit, who warned “the Tories’ support is draining away to Ukip like flood water ... UKIP is the one party where now you can find Tory values”. MEP and occasional Tory Dan, Dan the Oratory Man proclaimed that UKIP was now the main opposition to Labour in northern England. Who knows, perhaps they’ll suggest Farage “prepare for Government” next.
Yes, David Steel was wrong all those years ago. But at least his party had MPs.