Ukip hope that this week’s county council elections are just the fireworks display before the big bang. In 2014 they think they can blow open British politics by winning a nationwide election. If they can succeed in doing that, they would almost certainly force Labour into matching the Tories’ pledge to hold a referendum on the EU after the next general election. This would guarantee the public its first vote on Britain’s EU membership in 40 years.
The success of Ukip at making inroads during this campaign has caused some unease in Tory ranks. But a Ukip victory in the European elections a year before a general election would throw the Tories into a proper panic. Legions of backbenchers would demand that David Cameron brings forward the referendum on EU membership. Others would demand that he pledges to leave the union altogether unless he gets everything he wants in the renegotiation. There would also be plenty of voices claiming that the answer was a tougher line on immigration, one of the issues driving Ukip’s rise.
Then there would be those Tory MPs who would insist that some sort of accommodation or electoral pact must be made with Ukip. For his part, Nigel Farage emphasises that he’s still open to the idea — one he first floated in The Spectator last year — of joint Tory/Ukip candidates. ‘The bar to it’, he says, ‘is simple: David Cameron.’ He predicts that this idea is ‘going to resurface as an issue after Friday’ because of the local election results.
But the idea that Ukip will be victorious in the 2014 European elections is fast becoming the received wisdom in Westminster. More than a handful of Tory MPs, including one senior backbencher, privately admit that they’ll vote Ukip in 2014 to try to push their party in a more Eurosceptic direction.
When I recently remarked to one influential figure at No. 10 that Ukip might come first in this 2014 poll, I was cut off with an irritable, ‘I think it’s pretty certain they’ll do that.’ I was then offered an explanation as to why this would be worse for Ed Miliband than David Cameron. The level of detail in the answer suggested that this is something that has been discussed many times by the Prime Minister’s inner circle.
A Ukip win would lend weight to Farage’s demands to be included in the TV debates at the general election. This is a thought that fills the Tories with horror. When I asked one confidant of the Prime Minister if Cameron would take part if Ukip was included, the response was simple: ‘God, no.’
So, why does Farage — a man who wears socks with pound signs on them and Spitfire cufflinks — so terrify the political class? Part of it is that he deliberately doesn’t play by their rules. Indeed, out on the campaign trail with him this week I was struck by how he seems to think, ‘What would a politician do?’, and then do the opposite. I suspect that any member of the Cabinet or shadow cabinet who fancied a tipple at 11 a.m. would only succumb if they were sure no else was watching. But when the drinks trolley rattled past our seat at 11.08 a.m. (Farage is an unembarrassed first-class traveller) his eyes lit up and he asked for a glass of red. At this point the train staff, who up until then had shown little interest in the party leader in their midst, broke into approving chatter.
He is also not part of the Westminster set which he derides as being full of people who went to the same schools and the same Oxbridge colleges, where they did the same degree before going straight into a party research office with no knowledge of life outside politics. He tells me that the last time he talked to Cameron was four years ago. That this was at a dinner chaired by his father is a reminder that Farage also comes from a privileged background; he’s a product of P.G. Wodehouse’s alma mater, -Dulwich College, and followed his father into the City.
It is, though, perhaps the issue that Farage wields so deftly as an electoral weapon that most frightens the political class: immigration. Immigration was the second biggest cause of people stopping voting Labour between 1997 and 2010. Miliband’s recovery strategy (to Tony Blair’s great annoyance) is to persuade voters that Labour really would handle the issue differently next time round. So it is unsurprising that Farage savages Labour’s record when he’s campaigning in its strongholds. He claims, ‘There are an enormous number of old Labour voters out there who are just completely without anyone speaking for them.’
Farage says that these voters are harder to reach than disaffected Tories. He says, ‘They don’t actually engage in current affairs in perhaps the way that they might have done in years gone past.’ But he posits that doorstep campaigning and ‘simple, straightforward messages that resonate’ can win them over. He even speculates that ‘Ukip may hurt Labour more in the European elections than we hurt the Conservative party.’
Significantly, immigration has now become Farage’s way of talking about how EU membership affects Britain and why voters should care about it. He asserts that ‘immigration will dominate the referendum campaign’ when it comes. He also admits that ‘a lot of Ukip’s success will depend on this issue’, and whether its claims about the impact of Romanian and Bulgarian immigration are borne out.
In recent days, the Tories’ anti-Ukip strategy has begun to emerge. It has three main elements. The first of these is emphasising to voters that the next general election is about whether Cameron or Miliband is Prime Minister. The second is stressing that the Tories are the only party who can actually deliver a referendum on Europe or control of immigration. The third, in a change of tactics, is an end to insulting Ukip. No. 10 made clear on Monday that Ken Clarke was off-message when he attacked Ukip as ‘clowns’ at the weekend. Instead, the Tories plan to let others do this work for them. The fourth estate will be pointed towards any Ukip candidate who comes close to meeting Cameron’s description of them as mostly ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’.
When I put this strategy to Farage, his response was, ‘short term, the first one would worry me more. If Miliband comes up with a very left-wing [manifesto], that potentially could be hurtful.’ He tried to dismiss the second point by saying that Labour will be offering a referendum by 2015 and that ‘Mr Cameron attempting to campaign on immigration will be a very major mistake indeed’ if, as Farage expects, there is a huge spike in Romanian and Bulgarian migrants.
The lengths to which Ukip are going to vet its candidates after this week’s events, though, suggest that the third part of the Tory strategy is the one that concerns them most at the moment. I understand that the party has already started checking the CVs of general election candidates and is videoing interviews with them. It is also considering requiring those wanting to stand at the European elections to open up their credit records for inspection.
Ukip is changing as a party. It is becoming a more hard-headed, pragmatic outfit. Farage warns that ‘You don’t want to have policies that distract from your main objectives in life.’ He wants to drop the 2010 proposal for a flat tax, which is attacked by both Labour and the Lib Dems as a policy that would see the poor pay more and the rich less. He plans to replace it with a two-rate tax system, with one set at 40p, which will, in Farage’s words, be ‘seen to be fairer’.
Many predicted that coalition would see a return to two-party politics. But what we’re seeing in England today is the emergence of four-party politics. Ukip is moving to fill the protest party vacancy created by the Liberal Democrats, while simultaneously winning over disillusioned Tory and Labour voters.
The question is, can an anti-politics party succeed in the long run? If it can, then the political explosion Ukip is about to spark could blow traditional politics apart.
James Forsyth talks Ukip — spectator.co.uk/podcast.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 4 May 2013