Nigel Farage is pretty good at giving people hangovers, and on Monday morning all three Westminster party leaders woke up with one. Ukip’s victory in the European elections represents the first time in more than a hundred years that Labour or the Tories had not won a nationwide vote. It showed that the old allegiances on which our politics are predicated have broken down. It also reminded us that none of the parties are national affairs any more; Labour came third in four regions, as the Tories did in six. On this result, Ukip have more claim to be a national party than them; they came in the top two in more parts of Britain than either Labour or the Tories.
Ukip won by increasing its vote share by 11 per cent. This would be a remarkable achievement in any campaign, but it is particularly striking given that the last European elections took place during the 2009 expenses scandal, the presumed zenith of anti-political feeling. That the Ukip vote is still growing at such a rate shows that public anger at the political class has not abated. Go out on the campaign trail and you hear voters complaining even more loudly than before about how no one is listening to them on immigration and a host of other issues.
On his victory lap, Farage rather cheekily thanked Nick Clegg for challenging him to two debates on Europe. These debates — and Farage’s clear victories in them — kick-started the Ukip campaign. This has added to Clegg’s woes. Liberal Democrat MPs were already worried that his defeats in these debates showed that the electorate was just not prepared to listen to anything that their leader had to say. After coming fifth in the European elections and losing all but one of their MEPs, they’re a lot more worried.
But this does not mean they want Clegg replaced as leader. The attempt to oust him garnered minimal support. Lib Dem MPs might have their doubts about Clegg’s leadership but they are far from convinced that a change would solve all problems. I’m told that the mood in the parliamentary party is one of ‘ambivalence’.
The reality is that if you are a Lib Dem MP in strong Labour territory you are going to lose your seat. It’s a hard thing for any MP to accept, but particularly hard for a Liberal Democrat. The party has always believed there was no problem that simply working harder, doing more case-work and delivering more leaflets couldn’t solve. But now that the Liberal Democrats are a party of government, this simply isn’t true any more.
The Deputy Prime Minister’s internal critics suggest that either a change of leader or pulling out of the coalition could give endangered MPs a fighting chance. But either approach could endanger the party’s MPs in Tory-leaning seats.
The past few days have shown that the only person who can remove Clegg is Clegg himself. As long as he makes it clear that he isn’t prepared to leave quietly, his party will balk at trying to forcibly remove him. Lib Dems do not have the stomach for a long and divisive struggle with no guarantee of success.
Clegg has also been lucky in his enemies. Lord Oakeshott, the Lib Dem peer and old friend of Vince Cable, has been none too subtle in his plotting. Indeed, he has been so obvious that Cable has had to publicly disown him to demonstrate his loyalty, and Oakeshott has had to resign from the party.
The Lib Dem leadership is keen to stress that it is open to suggestions about how to change its strategy. But such statements are about party management rather than anything else. The electorate will not notice the Liberal Democrats recalibrating their approach to coalition. Indeed, a large part of the party’s problem is that the voters are aware of so few of the things that it has done in government. As one senior party figure puts it, everyone knows about their U-turn on tuition fees and some people know about the income-tax threshold and that’s about it. Blocking a few more Tory measures won’t bring former supporters flocking back.
These lost Liberal Democrat voters have moved into the Labour column and are propping up Ed Miliband. Without them, these election results would have been catastrophic for the Labour leader rather than just bad. As it is, he remains within striking distance of Downing Street even after his recent setbacks. That’s why there are senior Tories who are keen for the Liberal Democrats to replace Clegg with a more left-wing leader.
Labour’s European election result was awful for an opposition party; no opposition has ever triumphed at a general election not having won the preceding European election. Labour’s failure shows that the leadership cannot simply dismiss Ukip as David Cameron’s problem. Farage’s forces are threatening to exploit the gap between Labour’s leadership and its traditional support base. In this campaign, Ukip made inroads into the Labour vote for the first time by promising to stop low-skilled EU immigration into Britain. This is a policy offer that Labour can’t match.
Farage is now convinced that his party can keep these Labour voters and pick up some more between now and the next election. Ukip’s next manifesto will therefore not be as libertarian as its previous ones.
This is one of the reasons why the Tories are less concerned at Ukip’s success than you would expect. For more than a year, Westminster has operated under the assumption that the Tory party would panic if it came third in the European elections behind Ukip. Instead, it has taken the result in its stride.
The Tories cannot, however, simply assume that a large chunk of the Ukip vote will return to them at the general election. The decline of tribal voting means that support has to be earned. Cameron will need to show that he can do something concrete to address voter concerns on immigration and Europe if he is to bring them back.
Ukip needs to win seats at Westminster if it is to establish itself as more than a party of protest. But it is a sign of its success that the next general election will be decided by how its current supporters cast their votes.