For the last two years, British Prime Minister David Cameron has been unable to remove a serious thorn in his side, in the form of a wave of hard-right sentiment across the country that threatens to split the Conservative vote in two. The UK Independence Party, these days referred to almost unanimously as Ukip, has become the chief banner for vigorously old-fashioned conservatism.

Ukip was founded in 1993 as a single-issue party, focused primarily on opposing Britain's membership of the European Union as an affront to national sovereignty. They initially contained anti-EU elements from both the left and the right concerned about globalisation and immigration respectively, but in the past 10 years the leadership has morphed the party's position to the right so that it has become a hotbed of xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, and frothing-at-the-mouth rage against windfarms.

Where other strains of hard-right conservatism have failed in the past, Ukip has succeeded, partially because they attract protest votes in a political environment that is increasingly hostile to Westminster, but much more due to the no-nonsense charisma of their leader, Nigel Farage.

Farage, a privately educated former trader in the financial sector, is a very English kind of choice rebel. His background marks him out as a member and beneficiary of Britain's traditional establishment class, “the sort of chap millions of Britons have come to despise after the financial crash”, and yet his supporters celebrate him as an anti-establishment figure, who is assailing the Westminster bubble from the outside.

A major part of this is attributable to his style. Unlike the standard mould of modern politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, Farage makes a point of being photographed and filmed not kissing babies or addressing conferences but instead sitting in the pub, with a pint of English ale, sometimes stepping outside for a smoke. Nigel Farage has the same precocious articulacy as the other members of Britain's ruling class, but his well-spun anti-spin ethic gives him a natural, almost folksy appearance that makes him an attractive figure to many disaffected voters.

This widespread admiration for Farage's style, which avoids the often curmudgeonly persona that extreme conservatism usually adopts in Britain, not only maintains Ukip's public profile, it also masks how bizarre and reactionary their leadership's worldview is in private. Regular controversy seems to have caused remarkably little damage to Farage's popularity, where such events have largely involved the revelations of several top party officials' personal opinions.

Ukip's 2013 conference was overshadowed when their deputy leader, Godfrey Bloom, was fired from the party for calling an audience full of women “sluts” before walking outside and striking a TV journalist on the head when confronted about his views. Bloom's long history of sexist comments includes stating that boardrooms contain more men because women are less intelligent, and frequent tirades that all pregnant women in work “should resign.”

Farage himself commented earlier this month on maternity leave that women having children is “a lifestyle choice” and that unequal pay in the workplace is “biological” because women are “worth less” to employers. From this behaviour it would appear that Bloom's ejection from the party was not for his views, it was simply for the way in which he expressed them.

There is also an undercurrent of racism in the party that has sprung out of the ground with startling regularity. Ukip's founder, the leftist professor Alan Sked, left the party in 1999 because it had been “captured by the radical right”, claiming that Farage once said to him “we will never win the nigger vote. The nig-nogs will never vote for us.” Farage dismissed this claim as “absolute lies.”

However, many other incidents of racism in the party have been confirmed. Anonymous leaks from the party leadership's internal forum recently revealed that members openly conversed about “time for reappraisal” of the end of South African apartheid, and that some people were “intended by nature” to be slaves. It was also revealed that many Ukip members support the activism of the English Defence League (EDL), a gang of fascist thugs heavily connected to a string of arson attacks on mosques across the country last year.

Farage recently found himself under fire for denying involvement in writing the party's 2010 manifesto, after which it was proved that he was heavily involved after all. Pledges included painting all trains in the national colours, forcing people to dress smartly in theatres, a flat rate of income tax, bringing the cane back into schools, abolishing statutory maternity pay, abolishing discrimination laws, and an investigation of discrimination against white people in the BBC.

In spite of this string of controversies, however, Ukip remains strong. Polling comfortably between 10-15% of the national vote throughout much of last year, Ukip's strong political presence may well be making Cameron regret remarking of them in an interview in 2006, before he become Prime Minister, that Ukip was “a bunch of fruit cakes and loonies and closet racists.”

Ukip's stubborn polling strength has caused the instinctively moderate Cameron to let his government's agenda slide further and further to the right, to the extent that Farage appears to have more influence over government policy than Cameron. Cameron himself has become not so much a Conservative leader as a receptacle for his backbenchers' inarticulate desire to mould Britain into an image that is painted most clearly by Ukip.

Throughout the past year, the government has pandered to Ukip prejudices on several different policies where previously Cameron had maintained a veneer of modernisation and moderation. Examples of this can be seen in the controversial 'racist van' policy, in which the Home Office sent vehicles into ethnically diverse neighbourhoods of London with mounted signs that told them to 'go home', while Cameron was quoted as having said he wants to “get rid of all this green crap” in what appears to be a controlled leak.

The government is also attempting to push anti-immigration policies which would allow EU free trade to continue but restrict freedom of movement, approaches which contravene several treaties and European law. Conservative donors are not helping the issue, with more traditional Conservative policies being demanded or else they may be tempted to fund Ukip instead.

When the government's rhetoric and policy decisions are steered so heavily by the kind of populist xenophobia about which European nations should have long since learned their lesson, it is worth observing that the politics of fear are dragging the entire political centre to the right at the very highest levels of office. There is presently no danger that Ukip could form a government; but it is becoming patently clear that they do not need to do so in order to drag Britain's political spectrum into a reactionary mess.