David Cameron heads to the Tory conference in Manchester in a far better position than he would have dared hope a year ago. Labour’s opinion poll lead is shrinking, the economy is finally recovering and Ed Miliband is running out of time to persuade the country that he’s a potential Prime Minister. Ordinarily, the Tory tribe would be in high spirits — but there is a spectre haunting this conference, which almost no one dares name: Ukip. Nigel Farage’s insurgent party is fast becoming an existential threat to the Tory party.
The right in Britain is fractured — and fractured movements don’t win elections. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher romped to victory against a left that was split between Labour and the SDP. Now the left is united, with Labour welcoming back left- leaning Liberal Democrat supporters who have quit in disgust at the coalition. The 2015 election will pit a united left against a divided right.
This is, in no small part, the Prime Minister’s fault. When Cameron became leader in 2005, he calculated that the right of the party had nowhere to go. He husky-hugged and assumed that, however much those on the right grumbled, they would still vote Tory. After he was forced into coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Cameron compounded the problem by ignoring those in his party whom he has never felt comfortable with. The result: more and more support seeping away to Ukip. In the last 18 months or so, Cameron has begun to address the problem. But these efforts have yet to bear fruit.
Unless Cameron can think of a way to solve the Ukip problem, it will be nigh-on impossible for him to win a majority in 2015 — or any other general election. Ukip will not win many seats, but it is eating into the Tory vote in the most vulnerable areas. Recent polling by Lord Ashcroft shows Ukip at 11 per cent in the 32 key battleground seats and Labour winning every one of them off the Tories. Given that British elections are decided in the marginal constituencies, that suggests Cameron faces something of a crisis.
Many Tories have decided they can’t wait for Cameron to win back the voters he has alienated. The only hope, they argue, is a formal electoral pact. They propose that the two parties should field joint candidates. Advocates of this position — including a surprising number of MPs — point out that together the two parties command well over 40 per cent of the vote, enough to deliver a comfortable right-wing majority.
However attractive the Tory-Ukip proposition might look at first glance, it is seriously flawed. Any merger would only work if the two parties could bring their voters with them — and there’s no guarantee they could do that. It would also admit defeat, formally ceding the electoral territory that the Tories need if they are to win elections. Worst of all, the Tories would be hitching themselves to a party that is not quite ready for professional politics.
The Ukip conference in London last weekend was meant to be a coming-of-age moment. Instead, it was a shambles — a reminder of how much growing up the party still has to do. Godfrey Bloom, one of its senior spokesmen, decided to play word games with the word ‘slut’ and then compounded the damage by bopping a journalist over the head. It was, even Nigel Farage conceded, a disaster which ‘destroyed’ the Ukip conference and led to Bloom’s suspension from the party. If the Tories were formally aligned to Ukip, such antics would have done them immense damage.
Those who want a merger also don’t appreciate what Farage really wants. His objective is not to be elected but to transform the Tory party, a mission that he needs a change of leader and an election defeat to complete. As he put it to me last year, ‘You change it from without.’
The Tories have tried to bring Farage back into the fold. Before the 2005 election, there was talk of a safe seat and hints of a front-bench role. But Farage refused because, as he told The Spectator a few months ago, ‘I’ve always thought that Ukip could be something fascinating, could really be a huge catalyst in British politics.’ His aim is the right being remade in his own libertarian image — not a cobbled-together electoral pact.
At present, the main Tory strategy for dealing with Ukip is to hope and pray. They hope that the Ukip vote will collapse as polling day nears. They pray that ultimately Ukip voters will balk at putting the pro-Europe, pro-Human Rights Act, pro-green-energy Ed Miliband into No. 10. Tory strategists point to how Ukip polled close to 20 per cent in the European election in 2009 and then got only 3 per cent of the vote at the general election less than a year later — they see it as a soufflé party that will crumble at the first firm tap. They are confident that voters can distinguish ‘between elections that really matter and elections that don’t’.
The Tory hierarchy continues to abide by the mantra that the first rule for dealing with Ukip is not to mention Ukip. I’m told that there’ll be no reference to them in the big conference speeches — although one can be sure that the question of what to do about Ukip will dominate conversations on the fringe and in the bars.
A better solution to the Ukip problem is for Cameron to seek a pact not with the Ukip leadership but with its voters — including those who are ex-Labour. If Cameron plays this right, voting Ukip could become the gateway drug to voting Tory for disillusioned Labour voters. Having already slipped the bond of tribal allegiance, they are more likely to be open to persuasion that the Tories are capable of representing them.
To do this, Cameron doesn’t need a new European policy—the pledge of an in-out referendum has not made Ukip go away. But he does need to understand that Ukip is successfully pitching itself as a party of the working class. It now has the support of a fifth of C2DE, the groups that make up blue-collar Britain.
These voters worry that the benefits system has been corrupted. So the Tory emphasis on welfare reform does appeal to them. George Osborne’s benefits cap has addressed some of the most egregious abuses of the system, and I understand that the Tories will have more to say about tough-love welfare next week. But the same voters also think that big companies are making profits at their expense. So Ed Miliband’s new populist socialism — with its promise to cap energy bills — also strikes a chord.
Cameron needs to do what he can to show these voters that he, not Miliband, is their true champion. An obvious area on which he can do this is immigration, the single biggest issue for Ukip supporters. Nick Boles, a Tory moderniser, has advocated denying welfare to any immigrant who has never worked here, something that he insists is possible under existing EU rules.
But Cameron must go further and insist that he will use the upcoming EU renegotiation to challenge the fact that anyone from any EU country can come and seek work here.
He also needs to make clear, however, that he cannot deliver the kind of common- sense policies that many Ukip voters want unless they support him. As Nick Clegg made clear in his conference speech, the Liberal Democrats will veto any attempt to ditch the Human Rights Act, reform the Equalities Act and reduce green energy subsidies. The presence of the Liberal Democrats in government would also bind Cameron’s hands when it comes to any EU renegotiation.
Many Cameroons will find this emphasis on winning over Ukip supporters distasteful. But they must understand that the alternative to wooing these voters is the Tories losing power. Cameron has 20 months to reunite the right. If he can’t do this, the Tories won’t be a party of government any more.