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Farage: I did not 'bottle' MP bid
Ukip leader Nigel Farage has been taunted over his decision not to run for Parliament in a by-election triggered by the resignation of disgraced former Tory MP Patrick Mercer.
Mr Farage said he would have looked opportunistic if he stood in a constituency where he had no local ties and he did not want to distract from his party's efforts to claim first place in next month's European elections.
But he faced questions about whether he had "bottled" the decision to stand in Newark, which Mr Mercer held in 2010 with a majority of more than 16,000.
Mr Farage said his party would "throw the kitchen sink" at the Newark contest, and would field a local candidate.
No date has been set for the by-election to fill the Nottinghamshire seat vacated by Mr Mercer, who resigned after learning he faced a six-month ban from Parliament over a cash-for-questions scandal.
Mr Farage, who spent the night in Bath on the European election campaign trail, said he seriously considered standing in the seat and took soundings from Ukip activists in Newark about his chances.
Asked on Sky News if he had "bottled it", Mr Farage initially said: "Yes. At 7.30pm last night I found out there was going to be a by-election in Newark and, 12 hours later, I've thought hard about it overnight, and I have realised we are just over three weeks away from a European election, I'm touring around Britain, I'm trying to get people to vote for a political party that says we shouldn't have an open door to the whole of eastern and southern Europe, we should get back the ability to govern our own country, and I don't want to do anything that deflects or distracts away from that message."
Pressed on whether he admitted bottling the decision Mr Farage said: "I have said absolutely nothing of the kind."
Explaining the reasons behind his announcement t he Ukip leader told the BBC : "I don't have any links with the East Midlands, I would just look like an opportunist and I don't think that would work."
But he added: " We will fight the Newark by-election and fight it damned hard and get a good local candidate."
Mr Farage denied the decision not to gamble on a run at the Newark seat, which Mr Mercer held for the Tories with a majority of 16,152 in 2010, revealed a lack of courage.
"I think I have shown some courage over the years. I have helped take this party from nothing into a position where last Sunday it was leading the opinion polls in a national election," he said.
Mr Farage added: "I'm a fighter, I'm a warrior, but you have to pick your battles in life."
But Tory minister Anna Soubry, a Nottinghamshire MP, claimed Mr Farage was scared of the contest - using the word "frit" which is associated with Margaret Thatcher's attack on Labour former chancellor Denis Healey.
On Twitter Ms Soubry said Mr Farage "is not stupid - he knows he'd lose and runs frit from Newark!".
Tory MP Ben Wallace said: "That faint clucking you can here (sic) in the distance is Nigel Farage...chicken!"
Commons Leader Andrew Lansley told BBC Radio 4's World At One: "He gave the game away a bit by saying he's an anti-politics politician but actually making what is a very political establishment-type calculation.
"He said he didn't want to burst the Ukip bubble. Well, I'm afraid actually that's what it is."
Shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves said: "I'm not surprised that Nigel Farage doesn't want to fight in Newark. He bottles it when there is a real contest.
"When he has a chance to prove that people want him as a Member of Parliament, he backs away. He's done it again in Newark."
Conservative Cabinet minister Ken Clarke, whose Rushcliffe seat borders Newark, said Mr Farage had backed out because he knew he could not win.
"I am not really surprised. Whatever else Nigel is, he is not an idiot and I don't think he'd have the faintest chance of winning in Newark," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today.
The end of Mr Mercer's parliamentary career was confirmed when Chancellor George Osborne appointed him Steward and Bailiff of the Three Hundreds of Chiltern - the formal mechanism by which an MP can quit the Commons.
Mr Mercer said he had to "'fess up and get on with it" after a sleaze watchdog yesterday agreed plans to suspend him from the House of Commons.
The former Army colonel is alleged to have tabled Commons questions and offered a Westminster security pass after signing a deal that paid him £4,000 for seeking the readmission of Fiji to the Commonwealth.
He told reporters in Westminster he was going to do what he could to "put it right" for the people of Newark and for his wife and family "who have been under such pressure for the last year".
Mr Mercer added: "As an ex-soldier I believe that when I have got something wrong you have got to fess up and get on with it.
"No point in shilly shallying and trying to avoid it. What's happened has happened and I'm ashamed of it."
Mr Mercer resigned the Tory whip when the allegations emerged in May last year to ''save my party embarrassment'' and said at the time that he would quit the Commons at the 2015 general election.
The decision by the Commons Standards Committee to impose a six-month suspension from Parliament prompted him to bring forward the date.
Mr Mercer served as shadow homeland security minister until 2007, stepping down after suggesting that racism was ''part and parcel'' of life in the forces.
Newark Conservative Association quashed speculation that mayor of London Boris Johnson could stand in the seat by announcing that Robert Jenrick had been selected as the Tory candidate.
Ukip recorded a stunning 11-point lead among those who said they were certain to vote in next month's European elections in a new poll by ComRes for ITV News.
Mr Farage's party was on 38% (eight points up on a similar poll at the start of April), ahead of Labour on 27% (down three), with Conservatives trailing on 18% (down four) and Liberal Democrats on 8% (unchanged).
And more than half of those backing Ukip (55%) said they were very likely to vote for the party in the 2015 general election, suggesting that it may hold on to a larger proportion of its Euro-election support than in previous Westminster elections. Some 23% said they were unlikely to back Ukip in 2015.
By contrast, 90% of those supporting Labour and 88% of Tory voters said they would stick with their parties next year.
But the poll also had worse news for Mr Farage, finding that almost one third of those questioned (32%) regard Ukip as a racist party, against 40% who said it was not.
While one third of those taking part in the poll (33%) thought Ukip was more honest than other parties, some 38% said it was not.
Some 38% said that the eurosceptic party does not have sensible policies, against 34% who think that it does - including almost half (48%) of those who voted Conservative in 2010.
Another poll found that voters believed - by 32% to 30% - that Mr Farage declined to stand in Newark because he is "scared of losing".
The survey by Survation for the Huffington Post website also suggested however that more than one in three people who voted Conservative at the 2010 election would switch to Ukip if Mr Farage was to stand in their constituency.
It found that overall support among voters for Mr Farage as their local MP was 21 % - with 49% opposed.
That included 34.5% of 2010 Tory voters, 17% of Liberal Democrats and 15% Labour.
Survation polled 1,000 voters.