‘Farage has only got one ball.’ The last time I made reference to the Ukip leader’s monotesticular status, I got a rocket from an outraged reader. But the reader had missed the point entirely. Nigel Farage’s handicap is a strength, not a weakness. He’s open about it, he’s unembarrassed by it and he’s a better man for it. Yes, Farage may have lost a bollock to cancer, but by God he’s got more cojones than almost any Conservative you could name.
Our Nigel is a Conservative himself, of course. Just one who has been temporarily dispossessed by the mainstream party. When you talk to Farage he’s perfectly upfront about what he considers to be Ukip’s role: to act as the Tory party’s conscience. The moment the Conservatives start behaving like proper Conservatives again — Eurosceptical, small government, low tax, etc — that’ll be it. Most of the 7 per cent of voters who are currently Ukip’s will be straight back into the Tory fold and we’ll have a proper, Thatcherite government again doing the Lord’s work.
Seven per cent! That figure — from the latest YouGov poll — is pretty amazing, isn’t it? It puts Ukip only one point away from the ailing Lib Dems, meaning it’s on track to become Britain’s third largest political party. Yet you’d scarcely be aware of this development, the way it has been ignored by most of our mainstream media.
Peter Oborne nailed it in a recent Telegraph column: ‘If a left-wing party had reached Ukip’s size and consequence, the media would be fascinated. But, because of its old-fashioned and decidedly provincial approach, it has been practically ignored. In the 2004 European elections, the party gained a sensational 16 per cent of the vote. Had it been the Greens or the communists that had pulled off this feat, the BBC would have gone crazy. Instead it chose not to mention this event, coolly classifying Ukip as “other”.’
Oborne, in common with Matthew Parris and Simon Jenkins, is one of those commentators you can rely on to be either 100 per cent, ludicrously wrong or standing-ovation right. His Ukip column was definitely in the latter category, as you could tell from the 1,800-plus comments it got, most of them hugely enthusiastic.
It’s something I don’t think the Cameroons are properly aware of — the rapidly escalating extent to which they are so viscerally loathed by natural conservatives. Or rather, they are aware of it, but are in a state of complete denial. You can sense this in the way they deal with criticism from the right. They lash out with a wounded viciousness far nastier in its tone than anything they’d use against the liberal-left.
Yes, of course, it’s partly down to that Judaean People’s Front/People’s Front of Judaea thing: you’re always harsher to ‘splitters’ on your own side than to your more blatant ideological enemies. But it’s also a reflection of the deep internal discomfort which comes from cognitive dissonance. It’s never going to be easy repeating the tired old mantras that ‘elections are won in the centre ground’ and ‘look, you don’t understand: the electorate just isn’t ready for us to be as right-wing as you’d like us to be’ and ‘we don’t like these bloody Lib Dems any more than you do but what would you prefer: Ed Miliband?’ when every scrap of evidence tells you none of these ‘truths’ holds — if indeed they ever did.
As my ever-wise boss Fraser Nelson would argue, the really extraordinary thing about Ukip is not that it has 7 per cent of the vote, but that it doesn’t have 41 per cent of it. That is, after all, the proportion of the electorate that now definitely wants out of the EU (as against 100 per cent of the Westminster parties who want in).
But I think maybe it’s a bit harsh to blame Ukip for not doing better than it is. Yes, there are those who claim that Ukip is run like Farage’s personal fiefdom and is really little more than a life-support machine for its MEPs’ ringfenced Europensions. Au fond, though, I think their problem has much more to do with that BBC-led media perception issue noted by Oborne above. Even those who agree with every one of Ukip’s policies still feel slightly embarrassed associating themselves with a party so identified with the swivel-eyed, unelectable fringe.
Perception, as Gustave Le Bon noted in his 1895 classic The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, is an extraordinarily fickle and unreasonable thing. ‘Crowds always, and individuals as a rule, stand in need of ready-made opinions on all subjects. The popularity of these opinions is independent of the measure of truth or error they contain, and is solely regulated by their prestige.’
At the moment, the BBC (and its ideological soulmates) have the prestige, while Ukip does not. But once that prestige is lost the crowd’s mood can change very quickly and I think this is what is happening now. The tensions provoked by the euro crisis have brought this to a head. I see this a lot on the internet, where, as we know, revolutions are fomented: people are increasingly distrustful of the old, managerial political order represented by LibLabCon. That old order is remote, dishonest and, of course, directly responsible for the current mess. Ukip suffers none of these tainted associations. Nor does its refreshingly upfront leader Farage.
Perhaps the biggest misjudgment of David Cameron’s political career was to imagine that things were going to carry on much as they ever did and that therefore all he needed to do in power was not rock the boat too much. Fortune’s wheel will not treat him kindly for this. But it might yet turn rather handsomely for the feisty, principled post-politician with one ball.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 12, 2011