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[/audioplayer]How odd that David Cameron is still threatening us with ‘Vote Ukip, get Labour’, even after the Heywood and Middleton by-election, which Ukip nearly won with thousands of Labour defections. But if the Conservatives do lose the next election by a Ukip-sized margin then Cameron has only himself to blame — for the second time in a row. I know because I tried to stop it happening in 2010 when I was leading Ukip.
Soon after Ukip came second in the 2009 EU elections, David Willoughby de Broke and I went to see Tom Strathclyde, then Tory leader in the Lords. We said Ukip would stand aside at the 2010 election if given a binding promise of an EU in/out referendum.
Tom, an old friend, was enthusiastic. ‘This is just what we need,’ he said. ‘I’m having a one-to-one with David for an hour on Thursday. I’ll pass this on and come back to you.’ Silence ensued. Unluckily for Tom I bumped into him at the peers’ entrance the following Monday. He walked straight past me. I said, ‘Thomas, I’m speaking to you, what happened on Thursday?’ He turned half round and said, ‘It’s all too bloody awful. I can’t talk to you,’ and off he went. Which was worrying because the general election was only 11 months away. We needed any agreement as early as possible because we were appointing candidates. We had to identify the seats which we could deliver to the Conservatives, and we had to get a great many activists on side.
Three months later Nigel Farage stood down as Ukip’s leader to stand against John Bercow, and I took his place, largely to keep it open for him. Cameron still refused to talk to me, but the main theme in my leadership election campaign was ‘Country before party’, i.e. we wouldn’t field candidates in marginal seats if it meant keeping genuine ‘come-outers’ — those who would fight for withdrawal from the EU — out of the Commons. The idea was to get the ‘come-out’ voice going in the Commons at a time when it was not much heard.
When we came to the campaign, I did manage not to put up candidates against Philip Hollobone, Philip Davies, Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell. We distributed 50,000 Ukip leaflets in their constituencies urging people to vote for them, and I wrote supportive articles and letters in their local press. All four got several times the Conservative swing elsewhere, and all four have proved valiant advocates for the UK to leave the EU.
Cameron and the Conservative whips bitterly opposed our strategy, ordering the MPs not to be seen in public with me nor to have anything to do with Ukip. I said that we would help them whether they liked it or not.
After Cameron’s brush-off, our candidate in Stroud, Steve Parker, in his election address, asked voters there to support the Eurosceptic Labour candidate David Drew (but Drew still lost).
In the end the Conservatives did not get enough seats to form a government — you could argue they lost by a Ukip-sized margin — and went into coalition with the Liberal Democrats. It was only afterwards that I learned why Cameron had refused to let Tom Strathclyde even speak to us privately. He thought he had moved his party sufficiently to the left that he was going to win the election on Lib Dem votes shifting to the Conservatives! So he felt he couldn’t risk being found talking to Ukip. And at that time his attitude to us was still in full ‘loonies and fruitcakes’ mode.
But now the moment has passed; Ukip is no longer largely a Conservative protest group. We are supported by many former Labour voters and a chunk of the 40 per cent who have never voted before. Once again Cameron has said ‘absolutely not’ to any hint of co-operation and I’m afraid most people in Ukip now feel: ‘What the hell — what’s the difference between the others anyway?’ The party’s message has become ‘Vote Ukip and get Ukip, with enough seats to hold the balance of power.’
I have little doubt that if a more conservative Tory leader — Liam Fox, for instance — had been in place for the 2010 election, they would have welcomed a pact with us (it’s absurd for them to say they don’t do pacts with other parties — what about the coalition?). A different Tory leader — one who was more of a Thatcher and less of a Heath — would have understood that the national interest lay in working with us, and in a referendum on our EU membership.
Not many Ukippers want to see a return to old-fashioned socialism in this country under a Miliband government. But David Cameron has forced Ukip to fight him to the end. Clacton and Heywood are just the start.
Malcolm Pearson, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, was leader of Ukip from November 2009 until September 2010.