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Last Updated: Sunday, 3 October, 2004, 16:40 GMT 17:40 UK
UKIP stakes its claim
BBC political correspondent Jonathan Beale

Robert Kilroy Silk MEP
Robert Kilroy-Silk wants to be leader
At times it seems that UKIP party members have become drunk on their own limited success.

On day one of their party conference in Bristol they couldn't stop congratulating themselves on their electoral achievements.

Few political parties would hail coming third in a by-election in Hartlepool as a political triumph.

But by beating the Tories into fourth place last week they believe their time has come and that they will pose a serious challenge come the general election.

Perhaps it is not so surprising given that in its short but turbulent history UKIP has often come close to falling into political oblivion.

At first it was eclipsed by Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party. Then UKIP tore itself apart with bitter infighting. The party had faded from public recognition - hardly registering in the opinion polls. But it came back with a vengeance in this years European Elections.

Happy to take credit

Its turnaround in fortunes have been largely attributed to Robert Kilroy-Silk. And he doesn't seem worried that he's getting the credit.

At his brief appearance in Bristol he acted out the role of charismatic party leader - even though it's not his job.

He was the only one to arrive in a chauffeur driven limousine; the only one to be met by a scrum of cameras and reporters - to be honest the only one who interested the media at all. And he delivered.

His attack on the Tories and Michael Howard became the story on the first day.

His audacious bid to become party leader (made on national television after he'd left, by the way, not to the party members themselves) made the news the following day.

But while Kilroy's brief membership of UKIP (he only became a party member before being elected as a UKIP MEP in June) has certainly helped raise its profile, he's also ruffled feathers.

Yes, he had the audience eating out of his hand throughout his speech on Saturday.

But UKIP members don't look like the kind of people who would have felt comfortable appearing on his now defunct morning show.

They are mostly small c - conservatives, who are reluctant participants in the television age of personalities.

Though they've welcomed Kilroy with open arms - along with other minor celebrities like the TV chef, Rusty Lee, and the disgraced Tory cabinet member Jonathan Aitken - they're more interested in derailing the European Union.

Loss of trust

UKIP hasn't just been saved from political obscurity by Robert Kilroy Silk.

The loss of trust in the main political parties and its popular message on Europe are just as important.

So while UKIP's rank and file appreciate the backing of the former Labour MP, they won't let the party become just a vehicle for a former TV host.

One senior figure told me that the chances of Kilroy becoming UKIP's leader before the general election were virtually nil, though he would clearly be in the running if current leader Roger Knapman decided to stand down early.

The former Tory MP may lack charisma and public recognition but he has another two years in office and seems more determined now to carry on.

Looking for policies

This weekend has shown that UKIP's biggest dilemma is not about presentation - but about policies.

It no longer wants to be seen as a one-trick pony.

Quitting the EU remains its cornerstone, but the party is looking for policies on a range of issues.

It has agreed a hard line on immigration and asylum - accusing the Tories of stealing its ideas.

But it does not have a coherent messages on, say, transport, education and health.

And it is confused as to how exactly it would pay for improvements in public services.

Everyone here says that could be funded by a "dividend" from leaving the European Union.

But no one is sure how much that will raise.

Estimates vary wildy from 12bn to 40bn a year.

The fact that UKIP claims to have taken votes from all the three main parties will make it even more difficult to agree a comprehensive manifesto for the election. But they have now at least embarked on that task.

Loyal fan base

The striking impression from this weekend is that the party does have a loyal base of support.

Around a 1,000 people came to the conference - the party claims an overall membership of just under 26,000. The vast majority are well over 50 years old - a bit of a problem when UKIP claims to have created a brand new political movement.

Winning seats in Westminster will be much more difficult than winning them in the Strasbourg Parliament under proportional representation.

But UKIP is targeting a few areas where they are strong and at most expect a handful of seats.

Even that may prove to be wishful thinking.

But there can be no doubt that they've got the other parties worried.

Kilroy-Silk: I want to lead UKIP
03 Oct 04  |  Politics

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