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Could UKIP become Britain's protest party?

Tim Montgomerie

Screen shot 2011-03-28 at 12.57.58My Q&A column for yesterday's Sunday Telegraph attempted to answer this question. For those naughty ConHome readers who don't buy the newspaper I publish the uncut version of my piece below...

How strong is UKIP? The United Kingdom Independence Party has long being dismissed as a somewhat eccentric party on the fringes of politics. David Cameron once described its members as "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly". Today, however, UKIP is scoring 5% to 8% in national opinion polls. It hopes to overtake the Liberal Democrats in these surveys and then demand that it is separated from the “Other” category and listed as one of Britain’s four big parties. UKIP’s claim to be taken more seriously has been strengthened by being runners up in the recent Barnsley by-election and, more significantly, its second place in the much bigger test of the last European elections.

What are the issues that energise UKIP’s voters? The party’s leadership isn’t racist but demographic analysis of its supporters has resembled that of the BNP, which is now hemorrhaging support and providing UKIP with new opportunities. Both BNP and UKIP voters tend, largely, to be men who are anti-politics, concerned about immigration, economically under-pressure and socially traditional. Concern about immigration – rather than Europe – was the main explanation for the 300,000 extra votes UKIP won at the last general election. It won those extra votes despite the unconventional style of its then leader, Lord Pearson. The new leader Nigel Farage MEP – having his second stab at the job – is more telegenic and aims to broaden UKIP’s support base.

What is Nigel Farage’s strategy? Farage wants UKIP to capitalise on the fact that the Liberal Democrats, chained to the Tories in government, can no longer harvest protest votes. He wants UKIP to define itself as the representative of the people against the political class. He charges that the three main parties don’t offer voters any choice on many big issues. They are all, for example, signed up to the EU, higher aid spending, and to the conflicts in Libya and Afghanistan. Although he doesn’t want UKIP to be so focused on Europe he dismisses the argument that the EU doesn’t matter to voters. He predicts an upsurge in anti-EU feeling when new rules come into force in May that give EU citizens greater rights to claim benefits in this country.

Can Farage do serious damage to the Conservatives? UKIP undoubtedly cost the Tories some seats at the last election. There were 21 constituencies where if the Tory candidate had won all or most of the votes that went to UKIP (more likely in some seats than others) they would have become the MP.  If the Coalition fails to deliver on immigration or Europe the UKIP vote could easily grow. But there’s also the danger that kowtowing to UKIP’s agenda will upset voters who want the government focused on jobs, the NHS and crime. 

Can David Cameron counter the UKIP threat? Cameron shouldn’t give UKIP the oxygen of too much direct attention but two policies would most stop Tory voters defecting. First, he must deliver on his promise to reduce net immigration into Britain from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands. He’s on course to do this. Second, he needs to send a message to Eurosceptics. He can’t take on many fights with the EU because Nick Clegg, leading Britain’s most pro-EU party, won’t let him. What the Prime Minister could do, however, is to change his mind and put a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in the next Conservative manifesto. The new cross-party People’s Pledge campaign is signing up people in marginal seats and getting them to say they’ll only support candidates who will vote for a referendum. In less than a month the campaign has gathered enough pledges in twelve constituencies that amount to more than the majority of the incumbent MP.

Is Europe about to catch fire as an issue? David Cameron had hoped Europe would not become a potent issue but Downing Street is discovering that a third of the Coalition’s time is being spent dealing with EU directives. Worse, the expensive bailouts for Ireland, Greece and now, possibly, Portugal are causing anger on his backbenches. Some think heavily-indebted Britain shouldn’t rescue Euro member countries until the flawed currency zone is broken up. There have already been fifteen Tory rebellions on various European matters since last May (see These have involved sixty MPs, including 28 newly-elected members. Tory MP Douglas Carswell has blogged that the actions of ministers are in danger of making this government “the most pro-integrationist administration since Ted Heath's”. Cameron needs to be more careful if he doesn’t want his Eurosceptic backbenches to explode.


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