Another strong showing by UKIP at a by-election will reignite the Tory-UKIP Pact debate, but five fundamental obstacles remain.
The good citizens of Eastleigh will head to the polls today to decide who’ll represent them in Westminster for the remainder of the Parliament. As this paper has written about previously, this should have been a straight forward knock-down fight between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. But the Eastleigh by-election has been a curious one.
Firstly, Labour muddied the waters by defying logic and fielding a high profile candidate in a seat they were never going to win. Ed Milliband is desperate to prove that Labour can win anywhere, not just the North and inner cities, but risks coming a humiliating fourth. Secondly and more significantly, has been the stronger than expected UKIP effort. With a spring in their step from strong showings at other recent by-elections UKIP have run a half decent campaign, and at the time of writing look to be comfortably ahead of Labour for third, and even threatening to squeak into second. Even the defection of a UKIP MEP, Marta Andreasen, to the Conservatives, seems to have had no discernable impact.
Like Labour, UKIP were never going to win Eastleigh. But unlike Labour, UKIP don’t need wins to claim victories. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, being a small party, anything that shows they can hold their own with the big boys is viewed as a success. Secondly, UKIP are influencing the debate just by existing. Tougher Tory talk on welfare, immigration and Europe can all, to some extent, be attributed to UKIP jabbing at the exposed Tory Right Flank.
Cameron must have hoped that a by promising an EU referendum, he’d shot his UKIP fox. But Eastleigh is proving him wrong. Tory HQ have fallen into the trap of believing their own propaganda; that UKIP are a one-trick pony and could be put down with an anti-Euro platform. Tory strategists must now be frantically calculating how many seats UKIP are going to cost them in 2015. UKIP, remember, only need to take a few thousand votes in marginals to deprive the Conservative candidate a seat, something they can easily do across the country. Even modest UKIP predictions look like enough to deprive Cameron of a majority.
Yet is a solution that dare not speak its name; offering UKIP an electoral pact.
The logic is beautiful in its simplicity. Farage and Cameron would agree not to field opposing candidates in selected areas. The idea being that Tories in an area with only a UKIP candidate would vote purple, with UKIP supporters voting blue where there was no UKIP candidate. Such a move would certainly give Labour kittens, and possible force Milliband and Clegg to look at something similar.
But a pact, however mutually desirable, will not happen. Here’s why:
Which seats would be claimed by which party? Presumably, the Tories would want a free hand in their target seats, like Bolton West which they lost by a slither in 2010. But its just that kind of traditional Labour area where UKIP tend to do well (look at Wakefield, Burnley, Rochdale, Blackpool etc). And there’s no chance the Tories will offer up safe Tory seats in the shires for UKIP in return.
You’d also have the issue of numbers. Would the pact be country wide? And if not, exactly how many open goals would the Tories offer UKIP? It would need to be enough to tempt them, but not so many as to make a Conservative government beholden to UKIP to get legislation through.
Despite diplomatic words, it’s no secret that the leadership of both parties despise each other. Top Tories see UKIP as dangerous demagogues; populist, unsophisticated amateurs. They’re loose canons and would be a nightmare to work with. For their part, UKIP’s top brass look at the Tory leadership and see spineless careerists with no real world experience; privileged childhoods followed by humanities courses at university, then jobs party functionaries before being parachuted into safe seats. UKIP leaders see Tories and find no difference between them the Lib Dems or Labour front benches.
Both sides would suffer significant PR penalties by entering into a pact. For the Tories, a five year detoxification effort would be whipped out at a stroke. Millions of pounds and man hours spent convincing punters that the Tories were compassionate, eco friendly and progressive would be fatally undermined by jumping into bed with the unreconstructed Thatcherite Right. Equally UKIP have built a brand on being the anti-politics party. UKIP can’t claim that the other parties are ‘all the same’ only to leap at an alliance for political expediency. They need only look at the damage that thinking has done the Lib Dems
Linked to the previous point, although both parties are lumped together as Centre Right, there are significant differences in policies. Immigration caps, defence spending, international aid, grammar schools, taxation, nuclear energy and Europe are all key areas for both parties, and there’s not even a hint of overlap. This would matter hugely if the Conservatives led a minority government dependent on a clutch of UKIP MP’s for support.
The Conservatives would have to swallow an awful lot of pride to entertain the idea of a pact. The ‘natural party of government’ would in essence be admitting that they can no longer win a majority under their own steam. It’s difficult to overstate the emotional significance of that admission. Most would convince themselves that it was a temporary necessity, and that the natural balance would one day be restored. Some would even hope that this was the start of a reunifying of the Centre Right, and that UKIP would soon merge with the Tories. But and a goodly number would seriously consider leaving rather than be part of a defeated shell of a party. Many in UKIP too would balk at the idea of working with a party that many members had left in disgust.
There’s a long way to go before 2015. The economy could improve, and UKIP’s libertarians and social conservatives could tear each other apart. But if things stay as they are, Cameron and his team are going to have to start asking some serious questions, and maybe, just maybe, start putting out feelers.