Lord of misrule: New Ukip leader's honeymoon ended as soon it had begun
Already Lord Pearson is accused of selling out to the Tories. And then there's the rich landowner's claim for £100,000 in parliamentary expenses
Thursday 03 December 2009
Lord Pearson, the newly elected leader of the UK Independence Party, has certainly obeyed the first rule for incoming party bosses – make a big impact from day one.
He has been in the job less than a week, and in that time he has detonated a row that could rip the Ukip apart; he has been sucked into the expenses saga; and he has added a new dimension to the image of his party, which until now has been seen as a single-issue campaign, obsessed with the European Union.
Malcolm Pearson is immensely rich. Until 2007, he owned a town house about a mile from the House of Lords, and a 12,000-acre estate in Perthshire, where he employs servants. Like certain MPs, he has a rather... flexible attitude about which is his "main residence". But when he sold his London house in June 2007, for £3.7m, he told inland revenue that it was his "principal residence", to avoid £275,000 capital gains tax. That is legal, but there are MPs who have been pilloried for less.
But it is the political row that he unexpectedly detonated inside Ukip which could be the most serious threat to his authority and his party's future. He had been in his new job only 24 hours when he let on that he had been involved in making overtures to the Conservative Party about an electoral pact.
The deal that Lord Pearson and the previous Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, were offering was that they would pull out of the next general election altogether, and thereby give Tory candidates a better chance in marginal seats, if David Cameron would promise a referendum which would give the British the chance to pull out of the EU altogether.
He defended this policy in the first press release issued from Ukip headquarters under his leadership, entitled "Putting Country Before Party". "Of course we will do deals," he insisted. "If we could get a written guarantee of a referendum on our relationship with a post-Lisbon European Union, then it would be the right thing to do. Now I am leader that position does not change."
This could all be dismissed as make-believe, because there is not yet the slightest sign that David Cameron is prepared to dignify Ukip by talking to them. Three years ago he described Ukip as "fruit cakes, loonies and closet racists mostly". But it has been taken seriously by several Ukip candidates, who are outraged that all their efforts to build support locally could be wasted when Lord Pearson tells them to stand down because he has signed a pact with the Tories.
Gerard Batten, the London MEP who came second in last week's Ukip leadership contest, accused Lord Pearson of "a betrayal of Ukip and its members". He added: "Lord Pearson won Ukip's leadership contest without mentioning the proposed deal. Had he spoken up before the campaign there would have been a completely different result."
Nigel Farage, who stood down from the leadership to pursue a Commons seat, vigorously defended his successor, and insisted that the whole furore had been whipped up by people who had not understood what Lord Pearson had proposed. "This is not about the Lisbon Treaty. The deal was unequivocally that there would be a referendum on the EU, in or out," he said. "And we never offered to disband Ukip. The offer was not to contest one general election."
But Mr Farage sounded less keen on some of the other things Lord Pearson has said since becoming leader. While Mr Farage was leader, he battled to rid the party of its reputation for being "closet racists", but Lord Pearson has decided that the party should raise its public image with a high-profile campaign against Islamic extremism. He claims that "our people" are "strangers in our own land". Mr Farage warned: "The issue should be discussed, but it's very important we get the tone right."
It might seem strange that an experienced politician should set off such a bitter argument inside his own party on almost his first day as leader. Actually, Malcolm Pearson is not an experienced politician. He has stood for election only twice in his life. The second time was when he won the Ukip leadership. The first was when he became a prefect at Eton.
He is a businessman who made a fortune chairing the Pearson Webb Springbett (PWS) Group of reinsurance brokers, which he founded in 1964, at the age of 22. As well as being an inveterate campaigner against the EU, he has two issues known to be close to his heart. One of his daughters, born in 1980, had severe learning difficulties, which has made him a campaigner for residential care, and a critic of "care in the community".
He has shown an equally passionate concern for the wellbeing of Scottish landowners. Years ago, he made a marathon speech that filled 49.5 inches of Hansard on the Deer (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill, which threatened to take some of the fun out of deer stalking. He identified himself in that speech as an "absentee landlord", even though he had registered Perthshire as his main residence.
After he was awarded a life peerage by Margaret Thatcher in 1990, Lord Pearson became one of the Conservative Party's most consistent advocates of outright withdrawal from the EU. Frustrated that this was not official party policy, he went public in 2004 in calling on Tory voters to switch to Ukip in the European elections. That earned him prompt expulsion from the Tory group in the House of Lords. He switched to Ukip soon afterwards.
If it is true that there is no such thing as bad publicity, Malcolm Pearson's leadership is off to a good start – but at present, that is not how it looks from the outside. It looks as if Ukip has chosen a maverick amateur politician who at 67 is too old to learn to work in a team. That suggests that there is more trouble ahead for Ukip and its leader.
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