Inside Westminster: Exposing Ukip's nasty side does not blunt the party's appeal

What spooks the Tories is the threat Ukip poses to their hopes in 2015

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The Independent Online

A picture of the white cliffs of Dover, with a welcoming escalator for migrants superimposed, features in a new advertising blitz by the UK Independence Party launched yesterday. “No border. No control. The EU has opened our borders to 4,000 people every week,” is the poster’s message.

Crude, shameless but probably effective, confirming that Nigel Farage’s campaign for this month’s European elections is more about immigration than Europe. If the latest posters cause a row like the party’s first wave of advertising, Ukip will be delighted because that would merely spread its message to a wider audience.

Perhaps politicians in other parties will think twice this time before branding Ukip “racist”. Many agree with David Cameron’s 2006 description of Ukip as “fruitcakes, loonies, closet racists” but, like the Prime Minister himself, now realise that you cannot insult the millions of people attracted by Ukip.

The lesson of the past two weeks is that even exposing the nasty views of Ukip candidates and activists does not blunt the party’s appeal. Clearly the man in the Dog and Duck has some sympathy with them, especially on immigration. Politicians, with the honourable exception of Nick Clegg in his broadcast debates with Mr Farage, seem frightened to make a positive case for immigration. It’s a win-win for Ukip. Even a controversy over the Ukip leader’s expenses as an MEP failed to puncture his bubble. Like Alex Salmond in Scotland, Mr Farage is very good at playing a victim of the mainstream parties ganging up on him.

The Conservatives’ dilemma over how to combat Ukip is acute. “Our biggest challenge now is not the economy but how to get the ‘kippers’ back,” one senior Tory minister admitted. “The trouble is that they don’t want to come back. We don’t know what to do.” Mr Cameron is part of the problem: to many Ukip supporters, he is a perfect symbol of the modern Britain they detest, as they crave a better yesterday and tell Tory focus groups: “Our country is not what it was”.

The Tories’ real concern is not the 22 May Euro elections. They are resigned to coming third. What really spooks them is Ukip making the difference between them winning or losing the general election, which takes place a year from next Wednesday. Ukip will be the wildest of wild cards. Tory number crunchers reckon that a 6 per cent share of the vote for Ukip could deprive the Tories of key marginal seats in the North and Midlands and hand victory to Labour. Mr Farage’s party currently averages 13 per cent when voters are asked how they would vote in a general election. Although not all Ukip supporters are former Tories, they are more likely to be than to have switched from another party. It seems that Ukip takes four votes from the Tories for every one it gets from Labour.

“Vote Ukip, get Miliband” is certainly a message we will hear. But sensible Tories doubt it will pay huge dividends. A poll of 20,000 people by Lord Ashcroft, the Conservatives’ former deputy chairman, found that only one in 10 Ukip supporters believed both that a vote for the party increased the chances of a Miliband victory and said this might make a difference to how they would vote. Many Farage followers clearly regard Mr Miliband as no worse than Mr Cameron or simply do not believe what the mainstream parties tell them. Similarly, the Prime Minister’s pledge of a 2017 in/out referendum on Europe, which he reiterated yesterday, may not be the antidote to Ukip he hoped.

The Tories are trying to woo Ukip voters in other ways. George Osborne’s March Budget, with its measures on pensions and savings, targeted the “grey vote” but was also aimed at the “Ukip vote”. One senior Tory described it as “short-term politics dressed up as long-term economics”.

This “generation game” might not work as well as the Tories hope. True, the over-60s do turn out to vote in much greater numbers than younger people. But they may be less selfish than the Tories think; they do care about whether their children and grandchildren get a good university education without being saddled with debt, decent jobs and a foot on the housing ladder.

We know that Mr Farage’s appeal is strongest among white men over 60. If the Tories are tempted to pander to Ukip voters, they risk writing off younger people – who will vote in greater numbers as they get older. Mr Cameron’s party already has a “problem with women”, among whom Labour enjoys a bigger lead than among men. Chasing Ukip would be a turn-off for many women, making it even harder for the Tories to close the gender gap. Then there are the ethnic minorities. Lack of support amongst them was a big factor in Mr Cameron’s failure to win a majority in 2010. Playing the immigration card to match Ukip would hardly endear the Tories to this group.

If the Tories get this wrong, demographic change (including the impact of immigration) could leave them agonising over whether they can ever win a majority again – just as the Republicans did after Mitt Romney’s defeat by Barack Obama in 2012. An estimated 88 per cent of Romney voters were white.

Of course, when an election looms, all parties are tempted to put short-term tactics first. But Mr Cameron would be wise to play it long rather than try to “out-kip” the “kippers”. As one Tory moderniser put it: “We need to chase the voters of the future, not chase people who want to turn the clock back to the past.”