Nigel Farage parties in Malta before Newark byelection

Nigel Farage is at the centre of a new controversy over his partying in Malta hours before Ukip activists began their last day of pounding the streets in Newark in the hope of a last-minute surge against the Conservatives.

The polls opened at 7am on Thursday in the Nottinghamshire byelection, which surveys suggest will be won by Tory candidate Robert Jenrick, who is defending a 16,000 majority.

Roger Helmer, the Ukip contender, declared he does not believe the numbers showing a 15-point Conservative lead earlier in the week, with Labour trailing seven points behind Ukip.

But while a flood of senior Tories from David Cameron to George Osborne have been campaigning in the constituency over the last few days, Farage has been hundreds of miles away in Malta at a travel and tourism conference held at a five-star Hilton hotel.

Pictures showed him returning to his hotel in the early hours of the morning after visiting several bars.

His absence from the last few days of the campaign is likely to fuel speculation that Ukip has given up winning the Nottinghamshire seat, where the parliamentary poll will be held on Thursday. David Cameron and Osborne have both visited the constituency in recent days.

There was speculation that Farage himself could have stood in the seat vacated by disgraced Tory Patrick Mercer, who stepped down following a lobbying scandal. However, Farage said he wanted to stand in the south-east next year and to concentrate on the European election campaign, which saw Ukip come first to the humiliation of the other parties.

Amid fears Ukip would build on their success in the European elections, the Conservatives have thrown all their resources into defending Newark. A stream of ministers, MPs and activists has bombarded the town over the last few weeks.

Helmer, who was recently re-elected as an MEP for the East Midlands, has campaigned vigorously in the town with little sign that his support has been affected by some of his controversial views.

In the media, he has been criticised for comments about homosexuality, which he claims he has now accepted, and rape, after once suggesting in a blog that a victim should share some responsibility if she established a reasonable expectation of sex in her boyfriend's mind.

Labour, which held the seat before Mercer, appears from the polls to have made little headway in the seat. Ed Miliband and shadow cabinet ministers have all visited the area to support their candidate, Michael Payne, but Tory sources involved in the campaign believe Labour is not trying that hard in the hope that Ukip would provide a serious challenge.

The Liberal Democrats are trailing far behind and there is a possibility the party could lose its deposit or get fewer votes than the Bus Pass Elvis candidate.

Powered by article was written by Rowena Mason, political correspondent, for on Thursday 5th June 2014 12.54 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010