Farage hasn’t gone away – and he probably won’t

The world speed record for political back-pedalling must go to the former Ukip leader

In the long, noisy history of political back-pedalling, the world speed record must go to Nigel Farage. The man who vowed to stand down "in 10 minutes" if not elected, put a dignified spin on the loss by claiming he "never felt happier", then minutes later, was standing outside the count centre in Margate doing a nimble version of Vicky Pollard's "yea but no but...".

What he was actually planning to do now, he said, was take a rest and maybe put his name forward for the leadership – the same from which he had just resigned. It was simply the obvious thing to do and not of course, the kind of slippery flip-flopping politics he excoriates in others.

For those few moments, he looked a beaten docket as he headed for the stage to hear the result. The usual minders and heavies buffered him from the clamouring media. He visibly tried to settle his expression (an effort for many losing candidates) but ended up looking uncertain and a little lost. Hisses and heckles and chants of "bye bye, Nigel" carried on as he spoke. They were never in danger of stopping the flow – unsure though it was – or what academic Dr Amelia Hadfield called "his marvellously operatic projection".

Then he left, abruptly, eschewing the usual courtesies towards the other candidates. Everyone booed at this show of disrespect, although it probably said more about his internal disarray.

Still, to anyone who had spent the previous 12 hours overdosing on coffee and Kit-Kats in the spartan old theatres where Danny La Rue and Ronnie Corbett reigned in simpler times, his defeat has been signalled well in advance. Counting agents had called it for the Tories within a few hours. It was still early when a Ukip MEP accepted that Farage would have to resign – as promised – but would run for the leadership again. The plan was already in place.

The man himself wasn't there. After a brief appearance, he vanished to a nearby hotel, to sleep, supposed a sidekick. Among the few diversions left to us after that was the exotically berobed, behatted, shade-wearing delegation from the Al-Zebabist Nation of Oog. They announce their princely leader's stately entrance with a gong and tinkly bells, and process in regimented fashion behind him to a table, whence they hiss at anyone not to their liking. Meanwhile, the colour had visibly drained from the faces of Labour/Lib Dem candidates and supporters at the sight of the exit polls, as shock morphed into escalating horror.

Dr John FitzGibbon, a Co Limerick man teaching politics at Canterbury Christ Church University, always felt it was too much of a challenge for Ukip to make the big breakthrough but was equally stunned by the Tory surge. “In that sense it was all an anti-climax after the exit polls...” But he was already on to other questions, such as “whether Cameron – who walks on water now – can keep the whole UK show on the road... Scotland is the big question”.

It was true. As Scotland turned yellow on the TV screens, Nigel Farage’s fate seemed almost irrelevant.

But it made it no less painful for those closely affected by the polls. One of them was the first-time Labour candidate for North Thanet, Frances Rehal MBE, a farmer's daughter from Srah, Co Galway, now a child-development specialist honoured for her pioneering work on the national Sure Start scheme. Initial optimism triggered by a surge in voter numbers – usually a good sign for Labour – died painfully as it dawned that North Thanet was not going to buck the national trend. But she buoyed herself, saying she knows she can do it now, given a strong Labour area. "But Ukip poured so much money and resources into Thanet," she added, "the double-decker bus, the A-frame advertising trailers, the billboards, the flags, the posters, the battle buses..."

The vast resources poured in here by Ukip and Conservatives was a major talking point. Big beast Tories were wheeled in daily. Top party strategists camped out here for weeks. One such strategist urbanely rejected the word “poured”, preferring to say it had been “intelligently done”. For example, he said, they never made the common error of lumping all Ukip voters together. “We identified three groups within Ukip and we gave them colours,” said the jubilant one. “Purple for libertarian Ukip, blue for traditional Conservative voter and red for traditional Labour voters.” The Purples are gone over to Ukip but the Red Ukippers (mostly up north) and the Blues (mostly in the south) are retrievable – “And then there are the ones who are a bit disgruntled on the day because they just got the water bill or something”, added his colleague. “I can tell you there were many doorstep conversions the day before polling. People had to see that something tangible had been delivered for them.... That hit the target.”

By contrast, Farage's "vanity project" had devoured resources from other areas that needed them, said the strategist. "All those vans and more vans... It probably affected other seats. I wouldn't be surprised if Mark Reckless [a strong Ukip candidate] says he was deprived of resources. We haven't done that. I'm a volunteer for example – not a touch-the-king's-cloth-and-we'll-cure-the-scrofula kind of thing." The disdain for Ukip and all its works was palpable.

No one mentioned the popular theory that some Labour supporters held their noses and voted Conservative to keep out Farage.

Meanwhile, Iris Johnston, another Irish native and now the Labour leader of Thanet District Council, was keeping a wary eye on the council votes. Her own seat is on the line. Ukip's deputy leader said later that supporters might have been slow to vote Ukip in the general election – for fear of a Labour-SNP coalition – but they would have followed their hearts in the council vote. Johnston was seeing signs of that. Saturday will tell.

What now for Farage? The fact that a only handful of people in the vicinity could identify the deputy leader – Suzanne Evans – says much about his importance to Ukip. They scooped just a single MP but they achieved runner-up position in some 80 constituencies, and significantly, more from Labour than from Tory. They achieved a swing of 11 per cent in Thanet North and 18 per cent in Thanet South. Farage himself got a third of the vote in South Thanet.

He hasn’t gone away. And probably won’t.

The next big outing is the referendum on the EU. Good luck with that, England.