UKIP may have peaked but the Eurosceptic party is still likely to take enough Tory votes to catapult Ed Miliband into Downing Street
It is the British Left that is supposed to split, not the Tory tribe. Long before Monty Python in The Life of Brian so brilliantly satirised the tendency of comrades to fall out — “Judean People’s Front? We’re the People’s Front of Judea!” — they were often much happier fighting each other than they were fighting conservatives. Whether it was the Socialist Review Group, which became the International Socialists, being expelled from the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1950; or the International Marxist Group fragmenting into three factions during the miners’ strike in the mid-1980s; or the social democrat big beasts led by Roy Jenkins walking out of the Labour party to form the SDP — the Left, even the moderate parts of it, was fond of fissure. In contrast, the Tories’ advantage was supposed to lie in their determination to avoid fragmentation. There was often considerable scope for divisions and feuding behind the scenes, which sometimes spilled over spectacularly into the public arena. But having split over the Corn Laws in the mid-19th century, and then spent so much time out of office in subsequent decades, most Tories tended to take a worldly approach, particularly when elections came around. Politics was no good without power. And to secure it, Tories understood that they must hang together as a broadly-based and unified force.
Then, in 1990, came the fall of Margaret Thatcher, and in February 1992 the signing of the integrationist Maastricht Treaty by her successor John Major. This combination produced the equivalent of a collective nervous breakdown in parts of the Conservative Party.
There was an oddity, of course, in that Mrs Thatcher as Prime Minister had herself signed away so much more to what became the European Union than Major. She only realised it towards the end of her time in office. But in the early 1990s the notion that the Conservative Party had had its rightful leader removed by an establishment plot fused with the sense that Europe had gone too far. A novel idea emerged which was potentially extremely dangerous for the Conservatives. Perhaps the mainstream Conservative Party was no longer capable of accommodating all types of Tory.
While many Conservative MPs and activists stayed to rebel or complain, other Thatcherites, like the young City trader Nigel Farage, looked for alternative outlets. Farage joined the United Kingdom Independence Party, a grassroots enterprise founded in 1993 to fight Maastricht. The Referendum party, established shortly afterwards to get a vote on UK membership of the EU, was quite different. It was a rich man’s project run by the billionaire Jimmy Goldsmith. Two decades later the Referendum party is long gone, a historical footnote, and it is the cheeky-chappy Nigel Farage’s UKIP which has grown to such an extent that it now imperils the ability of the once-mighty Conservatives to win a general election.
It is not just that UKIP has of late been harrying the Tories in by-elections and local elections, while hoovering up protest votes of the kind that are available between general elections. Farage has got further than that in convincing certain kinds of conservatives that the Conservative Party has betrayed or abandoned them. In this way, a portion of the Tory tribe in the country that would once have been solidly, almost unquestioningly for the Conservatives, now wears the gaudy purple and yellow colours of UKIP. Farage has built a membership of 33,909 (as of February), not only by attracting concerned citizens who reject the mainstream parties or political correctness, along with some outright maniacs, but also by stealing away disgruntled Tory activists and golf club conservatives. If Denis Thatcher were still alive, you suspect that he might have been tempted by UKIP. The party is now regularly polling above 10 per cent of the vote in opinion surveys. Yet it need not score that high in the general election, or win a single seat, to do the Tories damage. Even if it sinks back to 6 per cent or 7 per cent, that will constitute in the region of two million votes in a tight election when Cameron needs every vote he can get. This new force on the Right, born of a split in the Tory tribe, could deliver victory by default to Ed Miliband, perhaps the most left-wing leader of the Labour party since Michael Foot. Before that come the European elections in May, ahead of which UKIP has talked up its chances of coming first or pushing the Conservatives into third place.
In part to counter the charge that UKIP mainly takes votes from the Tories, and to rebut the claim that a vote for Farage will aid Miliband, the party has made much play of its assault on Labour. In last month’s by-election in Wythenshawe and Sale East, UKIP came second ahead of the Tories and did eat into the Labour vote, although not very much. On a low turnout Labour got 55 per cent of the vote, UKIP 18 per cent and the Conservatives 14.5 per cent. The dramatic breakthrough against Labour Farage was seeking did not materialise.
UKIP’s rise has been made possible by the fracturing of the old party system, of course. British elections in the decades after the war used to be relatively straightforward. There were two large parties and either Labour or the Tories could be sure of getting more than 40 per cent of the vote. Turnouts were high and the parties could rely on tribal allegiances rooted in class differences and social attitudes. Support for the two parties was widely spread geographically too. In 1955 the Unionist party and their Liberal Unionist and National Liberal allies even got more than 50 per cent of the vote, and half the seats, in of all places Scotland.
And then two-party British politics started to fall apart. The Liberal Party, which had suffered a near-death experience after the First World War, reappeared as a winner of by-elections after its shock defeat of the Conservatives at Orpington in 1962. In the early 1980s, the new Social Democratic Party joined with the Liberals to create the Alliance, and later the Liberal Democrats. Proper three-party politics emerged and once devolution was introduced the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales had a new outlet. In 2010 Britain found itself with a coalition government for the first time since the Second World War. Even against a hugely unpopular Labour government led by Gordon Brown, in the aftermath of the worst economic crisis in seven decades, the Conservatives under David Cameron were incapable of scoring more than 36 per cent of the vote. It is in this unsettled climate that Nigel Farage and UKIP have prospered in recent years.
So far Farage has also been lucky in his opponents. When David Cameron won the Tory leadership in 2005 he made a misguided decision that he would run the Conservative Party as though he did not need to worry about Tory traditionalists. Rather than securing his electoral base, and then building out to appeal to floating voters, the Cameroons attempted to define themselves as the opponents of core conservatives, in the expectation that if they emphasised their modernity they would attract so many moderates that it would not matter if some traditionalists stayed at home come polling day. For a time this seemed to work. In the 2010 general election UKIP scored 3.1 per cent of the vote, more than 900,000 votes, and enough to cost the Tories seats in an election where they fell short of an overall majority. But it wasn’t decisive, and the Tory leadership could still at that point convince itself that there was no requirement to take UKIP seriously. The Cameroons calculated that grumpy traditionalists would anyway have nowhere else to go. That assumption turned out to be a big mistake. Enter (stage right) Nigel Farage, returning to reclaim the leadership of UKIP after a spell in the background. In 2010 he had stood as a Westminster candidate against the Commons Speaker John Bercow and lost, although not before he was almost killed in a light aircraft crash. He was filmed emerging from the wreckage streaked in blood and the impact left him in severe pain. (Just before Christmas last year he had to undergo a neck operation to alleviate the agony.) Back in a UKIP leadership role, Farage set about occupying the space vacated by Cameron on the Tories’ right flank. Again he was fortunate. The voters’ dislike of the political class had bubbled over in the expenses crisis of 2009, when many MPs were found to have been on the take from the taxpayer. Combined with the effects of the squeeze on living standards during a deep recession, the resentment felt about remote elites solidified into cold, hard hatred.
Now pensioners who had saved found their income hammered by the effects of quantitative easing. Hardline Eurosceptics felt they had been betrayed by the Tory leader, who had promised a referendum on the EU’s Lisbon Treaty and then not delivered one. Cameron pointed out to no avail that the treaty had already been ratified. Rising concern about mass immigration, and the reluctance of the major parties to discuss it, also aided Farage.
In government, Cameron decided initially that rather than reaching out to alienated conservatives unhappy with the compromises of coalition and resentful about the EU, he would instead redouble his efforts to distance himself from traditional conservatives. The Prime Minister embarked on the legalising gay marriage.
UKIP, then, seems perfectly placed for a breakthrough, to turn three-party politics in England into a four-party system. But all is not quite as it seems. The party, on the eve of its great moment of vindication and triumph, shows signs of having peaked too early.
Having been so exhilarated by the successes of the last year, the party’s activists and some of the party’s spokesmen talked up their prospects in the low-turnout European elections. It became fashionable in UKIP circles — in particular on the blogs that supporters populate with their comments — to predict first place. However, an ICM poll for the Guardian in February showed UKIP running third on 20 per cent, behind the Tories on 25 per cent and Labour on 35 per cent. This puts Farage only 3 per cent above what UKIP scored in the 2009 European elections.
Although it is possible that a strong campaign — or a Tory blunder — will enable Farage to finish in front of the Conservatives, the party cannot count on floating upwards on an ever-rising tide. It is struggling to attract younger and more moderate voters and it may have hit a ceiling in its support.
Here, the rapid growth in UKIP membership has also brought with it challenges for Farage. Media scrutiny of crackpot candidates has increased and will intensify further. And in recent months the UKIP leader has also showed signs of feeling the strain. Perhaps his phenomenal workrate and neck pain explain his increasing sensitivity to criticism, although it looks as though the old magic may be fading. It did not work for him when he turned up at the recent floods in the south-west of England in waders and a succession of hats. His visit made him look opportunistic and just like all the other party leaders, when his support rests on his standing apart.
Farage is now attempting to deal with these various challenges by professionalising his party’s operation, denouncing the more loopy pronouncements of his party’s candidates and appointing a highly respected head of communications, Fleet Street journalist Patrick O’Flynn, to massage the message. Such modernisation could backfire. Wasn’t part of UKIP’s appeal to its new members and potential voters rooted in its homespun, amateurish approach? It is supposed to be the anti-politics party.
Simultaneously, the Conservative high command is much less gloomy about Tory prospects as the economic recovery strengthens. If that improvement continues it should start to mitigate the impact of the squeeze on living standards. And on Europe too, Cameron’s commitment to a renegotiation and then a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU by 2017, offers the most realistic chance of a vote for those who desire it.
But the damage that UKIP can do to the Conservatives remains enormous, even if Farage is fading. A year from the start of the general election campaign, Tory high command is preparing a classic well-funded assault aimed at appealing belatedly to floating voters worried about the economic risks of Labour, to Tories keen to stop Miliband and to Eurosceptics desperate to get out of the EU.
In order for this to be successful the Tories have to assemble a broad coalition of the kind they haven’t put together in a couple of decades. Yet even a UKIP past its peak could aid Labour by securing two million or more votes at the next general election, making it all but impossible for Cameron to win. If that happens it will represent a historic reverse and a catastrophe for the Right in this country. A split in the Tory tribe will have let in a high-tax socialist government, the opposite of what happened in the 1980s.