The prophecy Nigel Farage, declared this year, of an earthquake in British politics at the hands of UKIP seemed to be swept aside as populist nonsense. However, Douglas Carswell’s landslide victory in the Clacton by-election, and UKIP’s dangerous encroachment on the Labour heartlands of Heywood and Middleton, has meant that the tremors of this earthquake are finally being felt, and with bookies already paying out for a UKIP win in Thursday’s Rochester and Strood by-election, it seems that the UKIP fox has at long last entered the Westminster hen-house, and isn’t leaving anytime soon.
On the 27th September, Mark Reckless became the second Tory MP, after Douglas Carswell, to defect to Nigel Farage’s Eurosceptic party since 2010. In his announcement at the UKIP conference in Doncaster, Reckless claimed that voters were being “ripped off and lied to” by the political elite, a claim met with rapturous applause. Prime Minister David Cameron labelled Reckless’ decision as “counter-productive and rather senseless”, decreasing the chances of a Conservative government after 2015, and in turn, reducing the chance of a referendum on European Union membership in 2017. But was this claim a cover-up for Cameron’s own political insecurities regarding the internal discord of the Conservative Party and his own leadership?
For one to truly understand the crux of this by-election for the Tories, one must delve into the defections themselves. The Conservatives seek re-election by deflecting criticism of their government onto Labour, by pointing out its internal divisions over its leadership. Therefore, the defections of Carswell and Reckless certainly peel away this veneer, exposing the Conservatives’ deep-rooted divisions between front and back-benchers over the tinder-box issue of Europe. Indeed, Douglas Alexander’s words may prove to be the death knell for the Tories; “divided parties lose elections”.
Reckless and Carswell seemed to be driven by personal morals. When these men defected, the public admired their personal convictions, willing to sacrifice everything for their own core beliefs, and it is this fundamental aspect that turns many people away from the careerist cabinet, only interested in upholding Conservative party policy, pleasing the whips and receiving that ever-crucial pay packet.
What remains at the heart of the Rochester race however, is the fact that, during this government’s tenure, Conservative front-bench politicians have seemed helplessly unable to deliver any renegotiation on the EU. They seem a rather untrustworthy bunch whose promises for an EU referendum seem flimsy and self-interested at best. Whilst the Tories may boast about the cutting of the EU budget, the vetoing of fiscal treaties and reformation of tax, these are all part of a litany of marginal reforms understood and felt by the political class alone. The general public does not feel as if they are reaping the benefits.
Despite a marginal reduction of £8.7 billion in the EU budget last year, The Office for National Statistics’ report claimed that, in 2013, the UK contributed €10.8 billion more into EU coffers than it gained. Moreover, with recent studies predicting the UK population to increase to 70 million by 2027, and with the dismal failure of Tory immigration policy, it really does beg the question: is anything really being achieved? The UKIP win of 59.7% in Clacton seems to suggest that the public don’t think so. And with the Conservative party only last week being forced to rely on Labour support for the UK’s continued role in EU policing measures, it doesn’t seem party back-benchers think so either.
The columnist Medhi Hasan has shrewdly observed the Prime Minsiter’s desperate attempts to “out-UKIP UKIP”. Mr. Cameron seems to be playing a dangerous game, one where he thinks he can please the Europhiles of his party and coalition by his fundamentally ‘pro-European’ policy, but simultaneously satisfy the demands of an increasingly Eurosceptic public and internal Conservative faction by insisting he is somehow still able to deliver on further reform. He must realise that he seems to be missing the point. The public does not trust the mainstream political establishment to deliver on the reform promised and, based on his past record, they shouldn’t be expected to either.
The time when Conservative party whips could cajole the majority of their MPs into supporting the government has long since passed. Unless Cameron starts to get a grip on Conservative EU policy, he is sure to be heading into an out-and-out war between his cabinet and the disgruntled back-benchers, only emboldening more to follow in the wake of Carswell and Reckless and tear his party, and any hopes of Conservative Europhilia, to shreds.
A UKIP victory on Thursday will therefore not only prove the extent to which disenfranchised Conservative voters are willing to turn to UKIP but also, forecast (albeit partially) the outcome of next year’s general election. Should Farage’s party continue to gain sufficient ground within traditionally Conservative constituencies to remove the disgraced Tory MPs, Mr. Cameron will undoubtedly be handing the keys of Number 10 to Red Ed.
The Conservatives, after the results on Thursday, must learn from UKIP and not simply regard it with a thinly veiled, highbrow contempt that has actually turned people away from them. By adopting a true ‘radical reform or we’re out’ policy, the Tories could feasibly dwarf UKIP overnight and finally reclaim its credibility as a party aligned with public opinion and unified in a central objective.
And so it has transpired that the Prime Minister, in his analysis of UKIP as “a bunch of loonies and fruitcakes” has made an enormous rod for his own back. Thursday will perhaps reveal who the real “loonies and fruitcakes” are; and I’m prepared to bet my dignity on the fact that it won’t be Farage and Reckless. In the interests of all Conservatives, Dave had better buck up or pack up.