A few minutes later, Survation’s poll was published – 35 per cent believed Ed Miliband had won, 31 per cent thought Nicola Sturgeon. The People’s Champion limped in third, on 25 per cent. He had bested Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett. That was all.
Suddenly, Nigel Farage is mortal. The magic is gone. The lustre is fading. The days when Ukip stood poised to sweep away the old political order seems – if not quite a distant memory – a loose and incomplete one.
It’s difficult to put a finger on why. The polls show the party’s support averaging around the low teens. Its campaign coffers have just been boosted by £1 million donation from Richard Desmond . And it continues to strike fear into the heart of its political opponents.
“Anyone in the Labour Party who tells you Ukip aren’t a threat is standing in the same crow’s nest they were in when we hit the SNP iceberg,” said one nervous candidate from a southern marginal.
Maybe. But watching Nigel Farage standing on that stage on Thursday – railing against the bias of the BBC audience – was to see a diminished man. Or a diminishing man. As the election has gone on, Farage has reminded me of the Michael J Fox character from the film Back to the Future. Gradually, as time runs out, Fox slowly begins to vanish, like an overexposed negative.
Nigel Farage believes his problem is under-exposure. Speaking to Andrew Neil at the weekend, he blamed the press for talking down his party, and for failing to focus enough on immigration. “If we get back onto that territory, then the Ukip vote will rise from here,” he said.
All of which only serves to underline the strange demise of this once stout party. When Ukip was awarded “major party status” by the broadcast regulator Ofcom, that was supposed to have guaranteed a boost in support. It was, after all, what happened during previous election cycles. Yet in this election, greater scrutiny appears to be having the reverse effect.
Speaking to officials and candidates from Labour the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, it’s striking how all report a similar message on the doorsteps. “There’s been a palpable shift,” said one. “Six months ago, it was “I like that Nigel Farage, he talks sense.” Now it’s: “I agree with a lot of what Ukip say. But there’s something a bit off about them.”
Another said: “What I’m seeing from canvass returns is hardcore BNP switchers sticking, but people who are concerned about the economics of migration drifting back. Farage’s cultural messages – Aids, etc – are turning them off.”
The People’s Army is also experiencing serious internal issues – some structural, others more personal. One of them is that almost all their senior officials are also running as candidates, creating problems in terms of campaign co-ordination and management. Another is that a number of supporters who have donated to the party have only done so on the basis they can control how the money is spent.
“That means they can’t effectively target their resources,” says one relieved Tory campaign chief. “For example, they’ve bought up a whole shop front in Bournemouth. But Bournemouth isn’t even on their target list.” That target list, which once consisted of dozens of seats, has now effectively become a target Post-It note.
It contains one name – Thanet South. This is where Nigel Farage has decided to stand and fight. If he loses there, he has pledged, he will step down as Ukip leader. But – perplexingly – with only 16 days to go, there has so far been precious little standing or fighting.
“He’s only held two big events here in the past three weeks,” says a local Tory official. “Apart from that, he’ll canvass a single street with the press, then leave.” Labour’s analysis is even starker. “This is a straight fight between us and the Tories now. Ukip just don’t have the organisation on the ground.”
Ukip rejects that. “Over the past five days, he’s only been out of Thanet for half a day,” says a spokesman, pointing out that the media have been told that future interviews will have to be conducted in the constituency.
But a friend who saw him immediately after Thursday’s debate conceded Farage is starting to find the constant grind of the election “tiresome”.
“He was jovial. But there’s no doubt he’s finding it frustrating. He’s out there trying to meet the voters, but there are TV crews trying to shove a camera up his nose.”
Finally, Nigel Farage looks like he is preparing to stand and fight; and if he does, it would be in character for him to do so wholeheartedly. But with 16 days to polling day, the end may be in sight for the People’s Champion.