How do the Tories deal with UKIP? The party likes to split on most issues, and it has got a nice little fault line running across it at the moment on whether to squash the party as 'fruitcakes', or, as Conor Burns eloquently argued on Coffee House this morning, engage with the problems and anxieties that are driving Tory voters towards Nigel Farage. If UKIP does have a good showing in the local elections later this week, one side will blame the other for taking the wrong course. MPs like Burns will worry that colleagues such as Ken Clarke will have insulted their own voters, or that the party's obsession with whether all those nice-sounding pledges really add up has missed the point. Those on the other side will think the party needs to be more aggressive in denouncing Farage and Co so that voters see their true colours.
Some - like Boris in today's Telegraph - may take a more sanguine attitude, not just about the local election results, but next year's European elections. I know of one Conservative group on a council up for election in 2014 which has already decided on a pragmatic way of dealing with the UKIP threat, which will be even bigger by then given the European context. When they are greeted on the doorstep with a voter who says they want to vote UKIP, they plan to tell them that by all means they should vote UKIP in the European elections because that has no real consequences, but that they should still give their local vote to the Conservative party.
But this year's results, when they start to come through, won't just spark a debate about attack strategy. They will also renew two running sores in the party. The first will be over gay marriage, which returns to the Commons for report stage and third reading later this summer. The debate has quietened down on this, but already there are amendments from opponents calling for a referendum and protection of teachers and registrars who disagree with same sex unions, and from supporters who want civil partnerships extended to heterosexual couples (which would, if the government is prepared to step down from its 'marriage is the gold standard' line, be an easy concession to make). Last year a number of Tories argued that their local election performance was a sign of the damage wrought upon the party, and the same argument was repeated in Eastleigh.
The second sore is on legislation for an EU referendum. Momentum is growing among backbenchers for this. Some want it in this year's Queen's Speech, so that they've got a year of campaigning before the European elections to drive the message home to would-be UKIP voters. John Baron, who sent a letter to the Prime Minister calling for the legislation with just that timing in mind, said today:
'The PM's commitment to the referendum has to be both credible and believable. It is credible because it has an 'out' option. But it is not yet believable. The PM should therefore bring forward the legislation into this Parliament. Opposition splits would see it through but, whether successful or not, people would know he was serious. Why, then, bother voting UKIP?'
Others argue that the Prime Minister could save it for just before the 2015 election, when the Coalition may have moved to a confidence-and-supply arrangement. This would mean Cameron could unveil the Bill without sign off from Nick Clegg and without the usual angry press conferences that accompany a government decision where one side is unhappy. Either way, MPs will want to hear more positive noises from Cameron like the ones he made at a meeting of the parliamentary party a month ago. Baron points out today that 'still there is no news or contact. This suggests either indecision or indifference. Neither are welcome.' As I argued last week, UKIP feeds on uncertainty in the electorate. But it could also feed on uncertainty among Tory backbenchers to drive them back into panic mode.