How the Tories are helping Ukip

Published by The Independent (17th November, 2014)

First Clacton, now Rochester – the unlikely landmarks of British political history as Ukip takes one more step on to Tory terrain with another expected by-election victory this week. Will historians of the future trace the schism on the right, devastation of the Conservative Party and destruction of traditional two-party politics through these unpretentious towns? Regardless, the revolving leadership crisis afflicting mainstream parties is set to spin back to the Conservatives if predictions of defeat turn out true.

Ukip’s surge is down to skill at riding the wave of anger against Westminster rather than specific issues, which is why it gets away with outrageous policy flip-flops. But prepare for tiresome Tory party divisions on Europe to erupt into the open again. Even before Brussels presented Britain with a bigger bill, there was talk of tremulous MPs making manifesto pledges to support moves to quit the European Union regardless of renegotiation. Others mull election pacts, a stupid idea that only aids their rivals.

The defector Mark Reckless has done his bit for a Labour general election victory, thus reducing the chance of his cherished EU referendum. Yet how strange these seismic political events occur at a time when the Conservative Party has rarely been more in tune over Europe, both among themselves and with the electorate. There are few Europhiles in the party now, and those remaining have no influence. From David Cameron down, Tory ranks are filled with people who think Brussels far too bossy and favour at least some significant repatriation of powers.

This reflects the national view. Surveys show support to weaken EU powers but generally oppose the exit that so obsesses Reckless and his vociferous right-wing chums. The delicious irony in this debate is that as the temperature rises and voters contemplate withdrawal, support seems to grow for staying in: indeed, it is now at its highest level in more than two decades with one polling group. ‘It may be there is a Ukip effect,’ YouGov’s Anthony Wells told me. ‘Leaving the EU has become increasingly associated with Ukip and this makes the idea toxic to some other people.’

How lovely to learn the more these Euro-bores drone on about Brussels, the more damage this does to their cause. Some, of course, are driven by personal hatreds and frustrations. But their blinkered obsession is not shared by voters, most of whom rightly see issues such as the economy, schools, health and housing as being of more relevance than interminable arguments over Europe. Yet Tory splits on this issue helped bring down the last two Conservative prime ministers and threaten to overwhelm a third.

Despite the strengthening economy and taking a lead in some polls over Labour, the Tory mood remains edgy. Defeat in Rochester and Strood will lead to calls for still tougher talk on Europe (and on benefits and immigration), while Downing Street does not rule out more defections. Yet the zealots have shown repeatedly no matter how much red meat they are thrown, they are never satisfied. Even now, when this ultra-pragmatic Prime Minister has promised a vote on EU membership should his party win next year’s election, they complain he is not serious about reform. But as one loyal hardliner said to me, who cares which side Mr Cameron campaigns on if he delivers their referendum?

Endless unrest over Europe underlines why Mr Cameron’s appeasement of the right has been flawed, even if forced to some extent by the crazy politics of coalition that drives the Tories from the centre. It has undermined his own credibility while failing to achieve its core aim – namely, to silence critics who will never shut up, regardless of damage they cause to the party they profess to represent. For any observer of Labour’s traumas in the Eighties, such self-serving fanaticism is wearily familiar.

Unfortunately long-term strategy has been sacrificed for short-term tactical gains. This was the case even before Mr Cameron was elected party leader, with that rash promise to realign Conservatives in the European Parliament to win support on the right. Repeated attempts to pacify the rabble manage to win them over briefly before they return even more rabid. Remember that loud applause for his speech offering the referendum last year, which Douglas Carswell said he had been waiting all his life to hear from a prime minister? How hollow the talk of healing historic divisions sounds now.

The unfortunate by-product, especially when drifting right also on issues such as crime and immigration, has been twofold. First, the party is less attractive to moderate-minded people; surveys show public perception of the Prime Minister has moved from being roughly in tune with Tory voters to significantly on their right. Second, these shifts – combined with ditching policies the electorate was told were central to the modernised party such as greenery – adds to the sense Westminster cannot be trusted. It fuels dislocation between politicians and the people. And it is this anti-politics mood above all else Ukip feasts upon.

Who knows if the Conservatives will eventually split or survive the Ukip insurgency? The only certainty is a referendum will not lay to rest this corrosive issue. Mr Cameron was right all those years ago when he planted the blue flag back on the centre ground, saying Tories should stop banging on about Europe and starting talking about things that concern voters. Sadly he failed to always heed his own advice. And the only winners were Ukip.

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