Analysis: Ukip’s strange rise might just break the mould

Ukip appear to be the latest beneficiaries of a trend most politicians will only reluctantly admit exists. The biggest driver of national feeling about Britain's political parties is a visceral contempt for those who govern our lives.

In the old days, when Labour and the Conservatives were the established parties who took it in turns to rule Britain, there was once a party called the Liberal Democrats who filled that role. They were the party to turn to whenever an opportunity arose to reject the ruling classes. At by-election after by-election, it would be the Lib Dems who romped home. When the UK government embarked on a major invasion of a Middle Eastern power, it was the Lib Dems who reaped the rewards of opposition.

Now all that has changed. Nick Clegg is in government and his none-of-the-above bonus has been stripped away. So the real support for Britain's third party – not even managing double-figures in the polls – has emerged: they are now Britain's fourth party. After coming second in the Rotherham by-election, it's Ukip who are taking on the mantle of being Britain's default protest vote.

Only in circumstances where an unpopular coalition government has to grapple with the challenges of a eurozone crisis could this materialise into reality. But materialise it has. And what makes Ukip's rise so impressive is it does not necessarily just represent a shift towards the right in British politics. These are not just frustrated Conservatives, displeased with the moderate approach of the coalition, who are turning their backs on Cameron and co. They are old Labour voters too, patriotic and hard-working and not wanting to be taxed out of existence, who are looking to Farage as an alternative to the mainstream. Those sentiments are not my words, by the way, but those of Ukip's party chairman Steve Crowther. Most politicians are able to say they're in favour of people being "hard-working", but the underlying point is backed up by pollsters: Ukip is finding traction among some Old Labour voters, too.

None of this is to say the Tories should not be worried. They should be. Actually, they are terrified. Even middle-of-the-road Conservative MPs fear the splitting of the vote that could result from a eurosceptic Ukip surge. On the doorstep they will argue Ed Miliband and Vince Cable could end up in government today if the Tories don't get an overall majority in 2015. These sorts of shrill warnings will have some effect, but feel like little more than damage limitation. The Conservatives are running scared. They know the 2014 European elections could end up actually being won outright by Ukip, giving the party a degree of national credibility it has never before enjoyed in the run-up to a general election.

Pressure. That is the impact of Farage's surge on British politics in 2013. Tory eurosceptics are rabid in their desire for an in/out referendum. They want the prime minister to legislate to guarantee a vote at some stage in the next parliament – ie, by 2020 – giving British voters the opportunity to decide the UK's future. So far Cameron has been dogged in his determination to avoid being pinned down to this commitment. That may change when he finally delivers his long-awaited, much-deferred speech on Europe in the new year.

Pro-European politicians – and it is still not really clear whether Cameron truly stands among their ranks – will be calculating carefully whether such a referendum will get them the result they want. They know that voters instinctively reject change – as recent votes on electoral reform and city mayors show – because of a reflex dislike for politicians in general which has fuelled Ukip's rise. On Europe, though, this doesn't feel like it's the only factor. Jingoistic feelings are likely to be stirred by such a referendum. Nationalism plays a big part in Britain's relations with the continent. And the drip-drip of euroscepticism from the national media has created a feeling of rebellion among voters. The result of such a vote is far from certain.

If the European issue is different, the longevity of Ukip's upturn in support might just be different, too. Despite their strong showing in the opinion polls right now, the orthodox forecast would be a disappointing drop back to mediocrity – a la the Lib Dems in 2010 – when it comes to the general election. But as with a referendum on Europe, the usual state of play could be shaken up by unexpected, rarely tapped forces. Those undercurrents of anger and resentment could fuel a Ukip surge into 2015, too.