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Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson: Tory voters won't stay with UKIP if Cameron delivers economic competence and strong leadership

In Wednesday's Times, Tim Montgomerie argued (£) that UKIP could deprive the Tories of an overall majority at the next election. He seemed to be blaming the problem on the Coalition, which has forced David Cameron to pay more attention to Nick Clegg than to his own natural supporters. Tim sees the Coalition as a major strategic error. It is possible to agree with him on UKIP without sharing his views on the coalition.

Like almost all Tories, I was disappointed by the Election result. My instinctive reaction was minority government, and back to the country in October. I now think that I was wrong, for two reasons.

First - this was David Cameron's immediate judgment - Britain needed a strong government to deal with the economic crisis. If there had been a weak government with an uncertain future, the markets might have taken fright. The risks were too great.

Second, the Tories were lucky not to win the Election outright. Suppose there had been a majority of twenty. The Liberals would have opposed every cut that they are now reluctantly accepting. There could easily have been a challenge to the authority of government, on a far greater scale than the protesting Leftist rabblements which we have witnessed. As a Cabinet Minister, Vince Cable has subsided into an irrelevant grumbling nuisance. But we should not forget that he was a formidable Opposition politician. There would have been one problem. Messrs Clegg and Miliband would not have been happy to be overshadowed. That would have been little consolation to the Tories, who might well now be lying third in the opinion polls. Nor would a majority of twenty be much protection from backbench trouble-makers.

Admittedly, a Tory government would have enjoyed much more freedom of manoeuvre on Europe. Yet that might not have been as helpful as some might think, for two reasons. First, the sovereign people are not nearly as exercised about Europe as we Euro-sceptics would wish them to be. Think back to Lisbon. A Government lied. Had the directors of a public company behaved in that manner, they would have gone to gaol. It was an appalling episode. So where was the public anger? That admirable fellow Trevor Kavanagh of the Sun said ruefully that whenever the paper had a headline on Europe, the news-stand sales fell out of bed. The sovereign people ought to be thoroughly, abjectly, ashamed of their spinelessness, their infirmity of purpose, their unspeakable wetness. But there it is. They are the only sovereign people we have.

Second, this is still not the moment to abandon fabian tactics, as in Quintus Fabius Cunctator. In response to the Eurozone crisis, the government's diplomacy has been subtle and cautious: quite right too. Most Tories know exactly what they want from Europe: free trade and political co-operation; membership of a common market on less onerous terms than the Norwegians and the Swiss currently enjoy. But it would be fatuous to delude ourselves that this will be easy to achieve. Few Tories have any sentimental attachment to the European ideal. Most look forward to the day when we can ruthlessly exploit the Eurozone's problems in pursuit of the British national interest. That day has not yet dawned.

Which still leaves UKIP. Tim's analysis of its members is convincing. Some are swivel-eyed, single-issue fanatics (that is not Tim's language). Many of them take a view which most of us share at odd moments: that the country is going to the dogs. Others are just in a mood to give conventional politics a poke in the eye.

So what should the Tories do to respond? There is a simple answer: nothing. It would be foolish to give any hint of appeasement, let alone panic. Instead, the Tories should do - what they ought to be doing already. At the next Election, economic competence and leadership are likely to be the two most important factors. Both should assist the Tories, as long as the government displays more grip and makes fewer mistakes. But that necessary tightening needs to be reinforced by the right rhetoric. There are no magic solutions. There is no easy way to generate more growth and relieve the pressure on living standards. That makes it even more important to find the right words.

The Prime Minister and his team have to find a way to persuade middle Britain that this government is on their side. This is a matter of tone, seriousness of purpose and political body-language.

But the Tories need more than presentation: policies and priorities matter. There is a simple test, which should be applied to any new proposal. Whom will it please? Are we talking about the Groucho Club, or about Grantham. Throughout all her travails, Grantham's most famous daughter was always determined to persuade her middle-class supporters that she was on their side and was took every opportunity to stand up for Britain. Mr Cameron would prefer a more sophisticated approach. Well and good - as long as it works.

"Standing up for Britain" brings us to Europe. David Cameron is scarred by memories of the black period when the Tories seemed to have become a single issue party - Europe - without even being able to unite on that issue. That is no longer a danger. The terms of trade have moved decisively in the Euro-sceps' favour. There was a time when Ken Clarke could have crippled the party. Now, he is just the last of the Eu-hicans. Today, there is no reason for Tories to be afraid of talking about Europe, as long as they are also discussing lots of other matters. Europe is not a magic bullet, but it should be part of the armoury.

It ought to be a formidable armoury. At the next Election, David Cameron should be able to present himself as the pilot who weathered the storm: the PM who took the hard decisions to avert disaster and promote recovery; the leader of the government which introduced radical social reforms even in the midst of a crisis; the only realistic candidate for No.10. If he can evoke great national purposes in that way, UKIP would be where it ought to be: marginalised. All that is easily possible - as long as the government does not trip over its own feet.

> Paul Goodman yesterday: The evidence supporting the claim that UKIP poses a threat to the Conservatives


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