Money matters, in party politics as in everything else. So the news that Paul Sykes, the multi-millionaire Yorkshireman with a strong dislike of the European Union, is to finance UKIP’s European election campaign next year, will have done little to cheer the Conservative Party, who might have been the chief political beneficiary of some of Mr Sykes’s estimated £650m fortune, were it not for their long-term dithering on the issue of Europe.
While I doubt very much that this will be a ‘severe blow’ for the Tories, as some hacks have suggested, it must nevertheless come as a disappointment to them. Although CCHQ are far from impoverished (thanks in no small part to Lord Ashcroft and Michael Farmer), Sykes’s very public financial support of their UKIP rivals may mean that the Tories may have to release carefully hoarded funds in 2014, which they would otherwise have used at the next general election.
The announcement was not as revelatory as some seemed to make out, as this is far from the first time that Mr Sykes has backed the anti-Europe lobby. He donated £1.5 million to UKIP in 2004 to fund their European elections, being one of the main sources of funding for the party. Likewise in 1998, along with Sir James Goldsmith, he was one the major backers of the successful campaign to keep the pound, rather than allow New Labour to sign Britain up to the Euro – an apparently prophetic move, given the appalling state of the Eurozone 15 years later.
Mr Sykes’s pending donation proves that UKIP have friends in wealthy places who can provide the ready cash for Farage’s campaigns. More worrying still for Cameron and Miliband is the fact that Paul Sykes is not the first wealthy party donor to find his way to UKIP. The party treasurer, Sir Stuart Wheeler, is another major donor who switched from backing the Tories over the vexed issue of Europe: Wheeler was expelled from the Conservative Party in 2009 after he donated £100,000 to UKIP.
With UKIP back in the media spotlight, so the customary sneering from Coalition politicians has begun (while Labour continues to remain nervously silent on both Europe and UKIP). Sneerer-in-chief has been Nick Clegg, whose invective was no more vitriolic than to suggest UKIP was “unpatriotic” and to say that the party were guilty of a “betrayal of the national interest” in their desire for Britain to withdraw from the EU. Aside from the pettiness of Mr Clegg’s throwaway comments, betrayal is certainly something the Lib Dems know a lot about – the spectre of its broken promise on tuition fees will haunt Nick Clegg all the way to the ballot box.
Forgetting the Lib Dems (which is easily done), the Tories should be just as worried about Paul Sykes, and a few others like him, as their coalition partners seem to be. Apart from his immense personal wealth, it is clear that Mr Sykes is as serious now as he was in 2004 of ridding Britain of its membership of the EU. In no uncertain terms, Sykes said: “I want this country to get back to becoming a self-governing nation…That is what I am in it for. I am not going to sit here and do nothing. It’s my final thing this, it’s my Waterloo.” Paul Sykes’s latest donation proves that he really is prepared to put his money where his mouth is.
And if the plain-speaking Yorkshireman continues to bank roll UKIP at every available opportunity, it may well be that David Cameron finds himself playing Napoleon to Nigel Farage’s Wellington in the European election next year.