The UKIP Boogeyman is keeping Tories in marginal seats up at night. Has Cameron’s Europe Speech done enough to kill the beast?
DAVID Cameron has finally pledged to hold an In/Out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU if a Tory government is returned at the next general election. Yet few believe that Cameron, a open Europhile, particularly wanted to make the promise.
Instead his hand was forced by a number of factors. The Euro Crisis has compelled EU leaders to choose between a break up of the cherished project, or to push ahead with deeper integration. Britain’s decades long strategy of being sort-of in and sort-of out is very soon going to cease being a viable option. Such a fundamental change was only going to be sold if a referendum was held. Secondly, Tory backbenchers are restless and spoiling for a fight. Many feel the Lib Dems are dead weight, holding back a radical Tory agenda of slashing the State and letting Britain’s economic dogs off the leash. But they are also spurred into mutinous musings by the uncomfortable rise of UKIP. Although this has emboldened some backbenchers into pushing for a harder line on welfare and immigration, it’s got many MP’s in marginal seats very ruffled indeed. Exact numbers vary, but it is generally recognised that UKIP cost the Tories at least ten seats in 2010. Even if UKIP polling plateaus off, they are still on course to deprive the Tories of close to thirty seats, almost certainly wrecking any hope of a Tory majority.
Clearly, something had to be done. And promising a vote on EU membership ticks a few boxes for Cameron; it recognises that the EU is about to fundamentally change in scope and centralisation, and allows the government to hide behind a referendum result as a way of postponing that admission. The pledge throws some red meat to the backbenchers, hopefully keeping them in line until 2015. This is especially necessary if the Lib Dems continue to try to put as much daylight between themselves and the Tories as they can. And finally, the referendum bullet might just be enough to kill UKIP.
It’s hardly secret that UKIP rely strongly on disillusioned Tories for a sizable chunk of their membership. Despite making progress in broadening their policy platform, they are still a party who’s identity is anchored on the issue of the EU. Indeed, the party is defined as much by what it opposes (the EU, mass immigration, high taxes, a politically correct elite) as by what it is for (strong defence, punishing criminals, free(er) markets, grammar schools).
Animosity towards the EU is almost the glue holding a fractious party together. For although UKIP is small (about 21,000 members) it is made up of an eclectic mix of clans. There are the fiery libertarians, who as well as wanting to slash the state, also want legalisation of drugs, same sex marriages, and are generally more comfortable with immigration. Then you have the traditional social conservatives, who want the ‘ton of bricks’ approach to crime, a restoration of national defences, and a return to family values. Add to this mix Thatcherites and a those who are just opposed to the old three parties for the sake of it, and its harder and harder to find a unifying theme.
UKIP are still over reliant on ex-Tories for support
The obvious worry for UKIP is that Cameron’s EU pledge could temp many naturally Tory types to quietly slink back to the Blue Mothership. So how real is the threat and what can Farage’s party do about it?
The polls have shown a small bounce for Cameron, but nothing earth shattering. That will be welcome news to UKIP, but the polls mislead. This is especially true for UKIP. Some pollsters still don’t offer UKIP as an option when they carry out their polls, meaning they often get lumped in under ‘other’. And yet when UKIP is offered as an option, UKIP does very well in the polls, flirting with 17 and 18 percent recently. But this never translates into a consummate number of votes at elections. Too many on the Right want to vote UKIP and say so at polls, but the cold realisation of letting Labour in by doing so changes their mind once inside the booth, and they vote Tory instead.
But with no by-elections planned between now and the 2014 Euro Elections, opinion polls, flawed as they are, will be our only gauge.
There’ll be a certain amount of moral vindication for UKIP as a result of Cameron’s speech. But UKIP are still going to have to react to it. The most obvious recourse they have is to call it a bluff. Few expect the Tories to achieve a majority, UKIP will say, so Cameron can pledge what he wants. It’s irrelevant, no more likely to happen than if the Lib Dems promised a referendum.
Their second option will be to call it cunning ruse. “Remember Lisbon, and Dodgy Dave’s Cast Iron Guarantee? Don’t let yourselves be fooled again”. This is an unfair comparison, but it’s catchy and simple enough to be used on doorsteps and leaflets, and it probably offers UKIP their best chance of countering the speech.
Of course there are enough caveats in the Cameron’s position for the Tories to undermine themselves. Cameron wants to try and first claw back some powers, such as the Working Time Directive and the much villainised Human Rights Act. These caveats were put in place to appease the Europhiles in his own party, but provide ample ammunition for UKIP. They can use these as evidence that Cameron is desperate to stay in the EU, and that he’ll con the British Public by getting a handful of meaningless concessions and then claim that a referendum is no longer needed. This’ll be a hard accusation for the Tories to shake, in part because it can’t be disproved, and in part because it’s actually the preferred option for many Tories.
For too long UKIP were dismissed as an irrelevance. CCHQ carried on blissfully unaware that members and activists were draining away. UKIP have grown from being first a gnawing irritation, to now becoming a purple nightmare in marginal seats. The Tories hope that like any monster, UKIP have a weakness. Werewolves can be felled by silver bullets and vampires by wooden steaks. The hope is that an EU referendum will stop the UKIP beast in its tracks. But Tories hoping for a dramatic writhing death scene will be disappointed. UKIP will take a hit, no doubt, but it will keep going. It will keep going partly because it is a bit rag-tag, a home for the eccentric and the passionate. Those who genuinely want a smaller state, a flat tax, grammar schools, have nowhere else to go. But it’ll also keep going because too many simply don’t trust the main three parties to give them a referendum. Lisbon left a bad taste in the mouth of eurosceptic Tories. UKIP will also shuffle on because, frankly, Europe isn’t that big a deal to most people. Conversely, although that fact hurt UKIP when it was seen as a single issue party, it means a Tory referendum pledge is not enough to kill it.