It must have seemed too good to be true for the Tories as a defeated Nigel Farage confirmed he would stick to his promise to resign as Ukip leader, having failed in his seventh attempt to enter parliament.
Not only had Farage lost in South Thanet by almost 2,000 votes, but Ukip lost one of its two seats to the Tories and failed to take any of its targets, which had included Castle Point, Boston, Great Yarmouth, Thurrock and Aylesbury.
Ukip aides attributed this to a severe squeeze on their older, right-leaning vote as supporters took fright at David Cameron’s warnings of an SNP-Labour alliance.
However, the Conservative joy at having “cut off the serpent’s head” was somewhat tempered by suspicions that the Ukip beast may still prove to be a hydra.
Summoning the press to a hotel on the outskirts of Margate, Farage did not even wait for his opponents to complete their speeches.
“I don’t break my word, so I shall be writing to the Ukip national executive in a few minutes saying that I am standing down as leader of Ukip,” he said.
Then came what many listening to him immediately regarded as a “but”.
“I intend to take the summer off, enjoy myself, not do very much at all, and then there will be a leadership election for the next leader of Ukip in September and I will consider over the course of this summer whether to put my name forward and do the job again.”
Challenged repeatedly that he was not actually resigning but just taking a break, Farage insisted: “I have resigned as leader of Ukip, I have kept my promise … but of course I am not walking away from Ukip. Ukip is becoming more exciting in a way we have seen over the last few weeks.”
For seasoned Farage-watchers, this probable U-turn is not entirely a surprise. After all, he pulled a similar trick when he resigned as Ukip leader in 2009, making way for a disastrous period of leadership by Lord Pearson before returning to the helm after the last election.
On top of that, the party is not exactly brimming with credible candidates to lead in his stead, let alone those who can command the popular support that Farage has done over the last few years. Senior Ukippers including the campaign director Patrick O’Flynn and donor Arron Banks have been begging Farage to stay on over the last few days, presumably suspecting that the party lives and dies with his leadership.
Banks told the Guardian on Thursday night that “of course” he would support whoever led the party. However, he also made it clear that he believed Farage had done a “bloody good job” and he wanted him to continue.
Looking tired but also somewhat relieved, Farage said he had recommended the deputy leader Suzanne Evans to be a caretaker leader and claimed to have had a weight lifted from his shoulders. He had suffered back pain during the first part of Ukip’s campaign, which got off to a slow and chaotic start.
“There’s a bit of me that’s disappointed but there’s a bit that’s happier than I have felt for years,” he said. “It really has been unrelenting, seven days a week, occasionally let down by people who perhaps have not said or done the right thing.”
Evans, while a competent media performer, lacks the star quality and charisma that propelled Farage’s party to victory in the European elections, won him two Tory defectors and attracted around 3.5 million votes in the general election.
However, Ukip sources insist she is a good choice to steady the ship after Farage failed to deliver the political earthquake he was predicting in the autumn, when the party was at 19% in the polls and some even suggested he could take more than 100 seats.
Nationally, the picture was not all bad, with the party taking 12.7% of the vote overall – a share that Farage attributed to Ukip’s social media strategy in the absence of a network of activists on the scale of the other parties.
There were more than 100 second places across the country, including in the Labour north such as Sunderland, Hartlepool and Heywood & Middleton.
Ukip activists at the Margate count were visibly downcast, however, after the party threw a large bulk of its campaign resources into the seat. A last-minute £1m donation from the Express newspaper owner Richard Desmond clearly failed to make a difference in the areas to which it was directed. “It’s all been for nothing,” said one elderly female activist to a senior local official.
But despite the mixed fortunes of the night, Ukip aides insisted the party would soldier on. Farage suggested Ukip’s future direction could be campaigning for electoral reform, among other issues. He said older voters had turned from the party to the Conservatives “for fear of the SNP” but its support among under-30s had increased.
“What we have seen over the last few weeks are our older voters being squeezed and they have been replaced, even under a first-past-the-post system, by young men and women who are now supporting Ukip in real numbers,” Farage claimed, although statistics are yet to bear out this boast.
“What we have got to do is turn it into a mass membership organisation that doesn’t just want to change our relationship with Europe and control immigration, but get positive electoral reform.”
Sources close to Farage said there was no way he would miss being part of the political movement that pushes for the UK to leave the European Union when David Cameron calls a referendum before the end of 2017.
Although he might not necessarily do this as part of Ukip, it does not seem as though Farage is ready to retire from public life just yet.
This article was written by Rowena Mason and Ben Quinn, for theguardian.com on Friday 8th May 2015 15.33 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010