The anti-immigrant UK Independence party has snatched a second seat in parliament from the ruling Conservatives, showing its potent appeal ahead of next year’s general election to British voters who are increasingly disillusioned with the established political parties.

Mark Reckless, who defected from the Conservative party on the eve of its annual conference in September, won back his old seat in the southeast English estuary town of Rochester for Ukip, beating his Tory rival by a margin of 2,930 votes.

The result shows British politics have become “unpredictable beyond comprehension”, said Ukip leader Nigel Farage. He admitted he had no idea whether his anti-EU party – which won May’s European Parliament election in the UK – could turn its two by-election victories into a general election breakthrough.

The defeat was a personal embarrassment for David Cameron, prime minister, who visited Rochester several times during the campaign and had obliged his cabinet members and MPs to follow suit.

Mr Cameron vowed to win back the seat in the general election but there was no sign that the by-election upset posed an immediate threat to his position as Conservative leader, largely because opinion polls show he remains more popular with voters than his party.

Political analysts saw in the Rochester result another example of how unhappy Britain’s voters have become with the country’s three main political parties. Mr Cameron has presided over an economic recovery that has delivered growth and 1.6m new jobs over the past four years, but which has also seen falling real wages and cuts to increasingly strained public services.

Two images from Rochester captured the breakdown in relations between Britain’s voters and its political elite.

The first was of a victorious Mr Reckless, arms aloft and enjoying his triumph over his former colleagues in the Conservative party, claiming that Rochester was a staging post for even greater things.

The second was posted on the Twitter feed of the Labour MP Emily Thornberry, an “image from Rochester” depicting a white van outside a terraced suburban house draped in red and white England flags of St George.

Ms Thornberry’s tweet came to symbolise the rupture between Britain’s political class – she is a wealthy lawyer living in an affluent area of north London – and the patriotic, football supporting, “white van man” that Mr Reckless now represents for Ukip.

Ms Thornberry resigned as shadow attorney-general after critics said the tweet was a sneering comment on the sort of white working-class voters who have switched to Ukip in droves in recent months.

She denied that was her intention, but her resignation – endorsed by Labour leader Ed Miliband – was a reflection of the panic sweeping through the political establishment over its perceived detachment from voters.

Mr Miliband will face more questions about how far apart his party has grown from its core supporters. The Labour leader lives in a multimillion pound house in the same part of north London as Ms Thornberry.

Her resignation helped Mr Cameron and his party, who were able to turn a humbling defeat by Ukip into a story about Mr Miliband’s fumbling leadership of the Labour party.

But the rise of Ukip has exposed a dangerous gulf between voters and the main political parties, which shows no sign of narrowing with less than six months until the next general election.

Senior Tories are fretting over the possibility that Ukip, far from fizzling out, is pumping itself up and momentum could continue until polling day in May next year.

Come next year’s election: “They could go down to 10 per cent,” said one senior Tory MP. “On the other hand they could go above 20 per cent.” At that level, Nigel Farage’s party could win numerous seats and hold the balance of power.

After all, less than two months ago Mr Cameron was boasting at the Tory conference that he would win Rochester and Strood and crush the “turncoat” Mr Reckless under the weight of the party’s campaign machine.

Both Tories and Labour spent the campaign attempting to address Ukip’s appeal on immigration by setting out increasingly tough policies on migration from the EU, to no avail.

They discovered that Mr Farage likes nothing more than to lure the mainstream parties on to his pitch. He cannot lose – he can always trump his opponents by saying he would simply deal with excessive immigration by taking Britain out of the EU.

Mr Cameron has not given up yet and has promised a “major speech” on immigration soon, but as his US election adviser Jim Messina has warned, the issue is a distraction: “Every day we don’t spend talking about the economy is a day wasted.”

The Labour recriminations over Ms Thornberry’s resignation will buy him some time – but not much. Ukip has gained further momentum from Rochester and both Conservatives and Labour have less than six months to find a way of stopping the onward march of the “people’s army”.

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