The Conservative party is handling the United Kingdom Independence party problem in a worrying way. Ukip is not an embarrassment; it is not a distraction; it is not an understandable but naive reaction to the issues of the day; it is not a theoretically appealing movement whose practical consequences could sadly prove perverse. And supporting Ukip is not a forgivable but counterproductive thing for a Tory-minded voter to do.
Ukip is mad, bad and nasty. Its ill-doing is intentional. It is nothing like the Conservative party. Its aims are hugely different from those of the Tories, and profoundly wrong. For any former Tory voter, supporting Ukip is an act of idiocy and of betrayal, and unforgivable. Ukip people are not (in Michael Howard’s term) ‘gadflies’, they are scorpions.
Dangerous as it is to draw concluding thoughts from an event which, at the time of writing, has not concluded, I am not encouraged by the way the Conservative party gathered at Bournemouth is approaching this tremendous threat to the party’s recovery. John Redwood set the tone at the outset by expressing (in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph) more sorrow than anger at Ukip’s progress.
Mr Redwood seems to have set himself the task of sweet-talking disaffected Tories back into the fold. He was at pains to identify himself and his party with Ukip’s anti-EU stance. The subtext of what he said was as plain as it was calculated: ‘If you want what Ukip wants, you will find that the Conservative party offers the best chance of achieving it for you. Voting Ukip actually imperils Ukip’s own political goals, for it splits the right-wing vote.’
Mr Redwood is a thoughtful man and I have always admired his stubborn respect for argument, but on this issue he is wrong. He risks feeding the crocodile. Finding elements in Ukip’s programme with which he can agree, he hopes to make of these shared opinions a bridge across which errant Tory voters may return to the fold; but there is a vast gulf between the two parties and they are in mortal combat for the same voters. All this sympathetic talk about essential congruities between Tory and Ukip thinking is glorifying Ukip and its aims, and encouraging voters to think that a flirtation with Ukip might be intelligent.
Redwood and his spokesmen should be emphasising the Tory party’s differences with Ukip, not the similarities; they should aim to shock and frighten Tory voters contemplating desertion, and scare them out of so stupid and dangerous a move. Tories should not be in the business of flattering their competitors in the political market, but of vilifying them.
Not only would this make (I believe) sound marketing sense, it also has the virtue of being true. Ask Dr Alan Sked why he quit the party he led for its first four years. ‘When I founded the party, it had clear principles. It had no truck with racism or xenophobia. All these principles have been abandoned.’
Dr Sked is hardly a Brussels-loving pinko. If the philosophical overlap between Ukip and political forces like the BNP worried an uncompromising and libertarian right-winger like him, it should worry any Conservative.
There are three distinct, if related, Tory characterisations of Ukip about which I think Conservatives should be very wary. The first has been to view the new party rather as one might view an embarrassing uncle at a family gathering. A concerted attempt is made not to notice him, to pretend that he is not there at all — or, if there, to treat him as a harmless distraction whom it is best not to encourage by gratuitous attention. Many Tories have seemed to hope that if they did not become too excited about Ukip, the troublesome party might just go away.
But Hartlepool put paid to that approach. It is time to acknowledge that the sour-lipped and gibbering character in the corner of the room is not part of the family, was not invited, intends real harm, and is not going to leave voluntarily. Ukip will get media attention and publicity whether or not the Tories help it to, so they might as well confront it.
The second approach, equally mistaken, is that at which (as I have suggested) John Redwood has been hinting: that when we study Ukip what invites our disfavour is not the party’s stated goals, but the likelihood that drawing support away from the Tories will make these perhaps admirable things harder to achieve. To suggest this is wrong in fact and unwise as a tactic.
It is wrong in fact because (for instance) a Conservative government would not aim to arrange what Ukip calls an ‘amicable divorce’ between Britain and the EU, but a sensible review of the marriage contract, designed to make it more workable. That both Ukip and Tory policy start from a shared dissatisfaction with the way the EU works now and the way it is going should not distract us from the fact that there is all the difference in the world between the two policies: the first hopes to destroy, the second to repair.
It is unwise as a tactic because it flatters Ukip’s plans, and many voters will remember this after they have forgotten the rather abstruse arguments about why a vote for Ukip may prove, in its effect, a vote for Labour.
The third wrong-headed Tory characterisation is to allow that the two parties’ aims are distinguishable, but suggest that the differences are of degree, not kind; that on a scattergraph of politicians’ responses to the issues of the age Ukip’s are simply a little further along the same axis, but in the same quarter, as the Tories’. On Europe I have just said why this is quite untrue. Just as worrying is the party’s stand on immigration. There undoubtedly are many Tory voters (and some Tory politicians) for whom Ukip’s inflammatory anti-immigration talk represents no more than a stronger version of their own views. But that is not Conservative policy, which is anti-racist but anxious to get a tightened administrative grip on the current mess of British immigration policy. This is not a weak version of Ukip’s instincts; it is a different instinct.
Instinct, I think, is the nub of it. There may be some overlap between some Ukip policy and some Conservative policy, but the parties’ instincts are profoundly different.
Or so I hope. If leading Tories cannot this week attack Ukip with real vigour and convincing anger, some of us may begin to wonder whether there is an explanation beyond simple incompetence. It is up to Michael Howard to prove such worries wrong.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of