Is a group of MPs preparing to leave the Tory party's benches and defect to UKIP? Christopher Hope has a good scoop in today's Telegraph that UKIP's Treasurer Stuart Wheeler has had secret talks with eight MPs about a possible defection. Wheeler told the paper that he had held 'completely confidential' meetings with MPs. Apparently unaware of the irony of spilling the beans to a journalist about these 'completely confidential' meetings, even if he doesn't name any of those involved, the Treasurer said:
'I have had lunch secretly if you like, in a completely confidential way, with eight different Tory MPs.'
'Each was promised by me that I would not tell any of the others, or anybody else except Nigel.'
Even Wheeler admits that those lunches were no indication that all eight involved might defect, or whether they actually had a looser pact of the kind James described yesterday in mind when they agreed to meet UKIP figures. But this is a higher number holding talks than previously thought: Farage has previously disclosed that he held meetings with two Tory MPs. The UKIP leader himself features in the Telegraph, too, with an op-ed in which he argues his party is now 'neither on the Left nor on the Right, but at the centre of public debate - rather than at the centre of the discourse that exists in the Westminster bubble'. But an easy trap for many - including Conservatives - to fall into is one of thinking that UKIP is a sort of Tory Deluxe offering, with all the Cameroon trimmings removed. As Alex points out in his post, the party does have a number of strikingly different policies which many Conservatives would struggle to accept.
Instead, Tim Montgomerie has the results of a snap survey of Conservative grassroots members, which finds 74 per cent of respondents believe the Prime Minister could make an effective response to the UKIP threat by making a commitment to an In/Out referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union. It would certainly calm Tory MPs down sufficiently to make them take note of some of UKIP's rather grand policy promises, as well as the areas where the two parties do quite clearly disagree.
The problem is, of course, that this is a promise that Cameron seems set not to make. The MPs most likely to hold completely confidential meetings with Stuart Wheeler won't be placated with the current In/In offer of a renegotiated relationship that is then put to the British people, but it is this offer that the Prime Minister seems most likely to make rather than the In/Out pledge that would keep UKIP at bay.