The defection of Conservative MPs to Ukip is the least of David Cameron’s problems. Of course, defections are dangerous for a party, generating momentum for opponents, and highlighting division and internal disillusionment. But they are only fatal if they are part of a logical pattern.
There is no reason or logic in the defections to Ukip. Cameron offers these obsessively Eurosceptic MPs the chance to realise their dream. Only if the Conservatives win will a referendum on Europe be held. There is an argument that the defecting MPs, and Ukip leaders, look far ahead and plan for realignment on the right that delivers a new governing force in the 2020 election.
If that is their calculation they leap a lot of barriers. Politics can change in a matter of minutes. To plot what happens in five years’ time is as eccentric as to act in ways now that make an in/out referendum less likely.
Politics is highly charged and emotive, but in the end a form of reason prevails. Look back at election results or big prime ministerial decisions and it is possible to see why voters or a leader chose to act in a particular way. At the next election it will be the Conservatives who will secure the support of most extreme Eurosceptics because only they can deliver the referendum.
I would not be surprised if the new Ukip recruit, Mark Reckless, loses his seat in the forthcoming by-election when the Tory machine works overtime to put its case that Conservatives have the chance to implement what Ukip can only dream about.
And that is Cameron’s problem. It is not Ukip that poses a fatal threat, but the Conservative party’s proximity to Ukip on the political spectrum. In the three elections from 1997 onwards the Conservatives’ pitch was Euroscepticism, spending cuts, tax cuts, and being tough on immigration and welfare. In each case they were slaughtered, although the outcome was closer in 2005 – post-Iraq – as disillusioned Labour voters turned to the Lib Dems. Partly with Ukip in mind the Conservatives’ pitch this week in Birmingham is along similar lines to those that lost them elections.
The pitch has the advantage of accessible populism and it will appeal to some voters who believe that “government” in all its various manifestations is to blame for their current sense of fragility. On the whole the media will approve. But what will the voters do? For all the disdain of the mighty London media, Labour is still ahead in most polls.
The fragile lead is partly explained by a deep fear of the modern Conservative party in parts of the country. When I was in Scotland in advance of the referendum I was surprised how often the fear of the Conservatives was an issue – not the model represented by their excellent leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, but the Westminster version, the one that was imposing a bedroom tax and causing iniquitous chaos in England’s NHS and schools.
Some people were voting Yes because they did not want to be ruled by a Tory government after 2015. Some told me they were voting No because they worried about leaving behind the poorer parts of England to a Tory government. The Conservatives have been toxic in Scotland for a long time, but the degree to which they terrify voters in the north of England is relatively new. In the 1980s they won seats in the north with ease.
The capacity of the modern Conservative party to generate fear takes several forms. For business leaders it is the instability that arises in relation to possible withdrawal from Europe, the part of the repertoire that will in the end appeal to some potential Ukip voters. But for voters in seats that the Conservatives need to win it is George Osborne’s approach to the deficit and its implications that terrifies.
In his speech at the Conservative party's conference Osborne confirmed that in his view a further £25bn of cuts must be implemented quickly. He gave one example – cutting welfare benefits for those of working age, a policy that would save £3bn. What about the other £22bn? Most voters support tight public spending in theory. But when the specifics are addressed they are less keen. Will even business leaders be as supportive when the Chancellor slashes defence, transport, health, and the rest in order to meet a self-imposed deadline to wipe out the deficit?
The “deficit” has become a term used too casually, like “weapons of mass destruction” used to be. There was no frightening structural deficit until the crash in 2008. The crash caused the deficit. The deficit did not cause the crash. Until the crash, spending was based on cautious forecasts of growth that did not materialise. To their credit, the Coalition has shown that some cuts can be made without wrecking services – genuine efficiencies that a Labour government would not have dared to make. There is still quite a lot of waste in the public sector. But there are limits to these so-called easy cuts and there is no need for Osborne to cut many more billions in a wild hurry, as he proposes to do.
All those unspecified deep cuts, combined with the current leadership’s narrow view of what constitutes public service reform, frighten voters in seats that the Conservatives need to win. A “One-nation” Tory leadership would seek to reassure such voters and keep a very big distance from Ukip.Reuse content