Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Inside Westminster

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One party is setting the political agenda.

It is not the Conservatives, Labour or the Liberal Democrats. Ukip has only one MP, but it calls the shots. David Cameron and Ed Miliband insist they will not ape Nigel Farage, but then give the impression of doing so.

Ukip’s rise and rise is why Cameron is trying to smash the European Union’s tablet of stone on the free movement of people. It is why he nominated Sir Andrew Green, the chairman of MigrationWatch UK, for a peerage. It is why he had to be Mr Angry at his Brussels press conference yesterday about the EU’s unexpected demand for the UK to pay another £1.7bn into its coffers.

Ukip is also why Miliband promised an Immigration Reform Bill within weeks if Labour wins power in next May’s general election. Both Cameron and Miliband will have more to say about immigration before Christmas.

The Prime Minister needs something up his sleeve in case his party loses next month’s Rochester and Strood by-election, which would give Ukip its second elected MP. So he will set out his plans to curb EU migration. Tory MPs believe he may also do a U-turn by refusing to “opt in” to EU justice and police measures including the European Arrest Warrant – a change of plan that would provoke a row with Theresa May, the Liberal Democrats and the police.

Speculation that Cameron’s critics would force a leadership contest if the by-election is lost is wide of the mark. His enemies could trigger a vote of confidence – by getting the signatures of 46 MPs – but lack a credible alternative as Boris Johnson has not yet returned to the Commons. They know Cameron would win the subsequent vote of confidence. “There are more than 46 people who hate Cameron,” one rebel told me. “But all we would achieve is a massive split, a gift to Labour, and Cameron would survive anyway.”

Tory and Labour MPs are spooked by Farage’s party. Many are busy recalculating their own survival prospects in next May’s elections. But Ukip is the wildest of wild cards and it is impossible to assess its impact in marginal seats.

If Mark Reckless, the former Tory MP who switched to Ukip, holds his Rochester and Strood seat on 20 November, the Tories fear two more defections. Ukip has dumped its candidate in South Basildon and East Thurrock in the hope of persuading John Baron, the Tory MP for neighbouring Basildon and Billericay, to jump ship. Farage is also keeping a winnable seat warm for another Tory defector in Boston and Skegness, where the Tory former minister Mark Simmonds is standing down.

Ukip is on a roll. Tory hopes that it would drop out of the headlines after the European elections this May have long been dashed. Farage is also on a lucky streak. The European Commission’s demand for higher UK contributions was an early Christmas present for him. “Brussels has just handed Rochester to Ukip,” one Tory MP snarled.

Labour cannot afford to crow. True, Ukip wins more votes from the Tories. But it is finally dawning on Labour’s high command that “the Farage factor” could cost the party seats. “Farage is brilliant at the politics of blame,” one Labour MP admitted. “A lot of people are angry and he points the finger at all the main parties, saying ‘it’s their fault’. … We have to show that we would fight for these people, and secure change to make their lives better. They don’t think we will. They see Farage as a fighter on their behalf.”

For both Cameron and Miliband, taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act. The Prime Minister has pandered to Ukip much more than the Labour leader, who does – albeit softly – talk up the benefits of immigration and is adamant that his party is not “Ukip-lite.”

Bizarrely, the Downing Street website has been edited to remove Cameron’s pledge to campaign with “all my heart and soul” for Britain to remain a member of a reformed EU. That was made in January last year when he promised an in/out referendum in 2017. The Tory hope then was to shoot Ukip’s fox, and kick the Europe issue into the long grass beyond the general election. The referendum pledge did nothing of the sort. The lesson is that Eurosceptics can never be satisfied.

Tory modernisers who were part of the original Cameron project to reform the “nasty party” are worried the Prime Minister will continue to toss bones to the sceptics in the hope of wooing back voters who have switched to Ukip.

True, many of those are over 65 and the most likely age group to vote. But modernisers fear the short-term pressure to win next May will alienate the younger generation. The latest Com Res survey for this newspaper gives the Tories a lead of 43 to 22 per cent over Labour among those 65 and over. But Labour is ahead by 51 to 16 per cent among those aged 18 to 24.

As one leading Tory moderniser put it: “Young voters get older. We write them off at our peril.”

Parties play political football in effort to woo supporters

As the election approaches, the phrase “political football” takes on a new meaning. The Liberal Democrats’ recent conference approved some sensible measures to reform the beautiful game, including “safe standing” at Premiership games and a 5 per cent levy on English and Scottish Premier League clubs to fund the game’s grassroots.

Last week, Labour outlined plans to give fans a say in the running of their clubs – at least two seats on the board and the right to buy 10 per cent of the shares if their club changes ownership (the German club Bayern Munich is 82 per cent owned by its supporters). Crucially, this would be enforced by legislation if Labour wins power next May.

This week, the Tories tried to do a bit of man-for-man marking when Helen Grant, the sports minister, set up a Supporter Ownership and Engagement Expert group to discuss ways of removing barriers to “community ownership”. Yes, a talking shop.

The difference between footy fans and voters is that fans are unlikely to go off and support someone else. They deserve much more than the cavalier treatment from most top clubs, who take them for granted.

Final score: Labour 2,  Lib Dems 1, Tories 0.