Nick Wood: Howard is going the wrong way about tackling UKIP

Share
Related Topics

A few weeks ago, hardly anyone in senior Conservative circles thought that the United Kingdom Independence Party would prove to be much more than a minor irritation when the results of the European elections were declared.

A few weeks ago, hardly anyone in senior Conservative circles thought that the United Kingdom Independence Party would prove to be much more than a minor irritation when the results of the European elections were declared.

With his U-turn over a referendum on the European constitution, Tony Blair had killed off the one issue that would have brought the European campaign to life. With the euro already a dead duck and Brussels doing little to excite the tabloid media, there seemed scant reason to suppose European issues would play much part in the Strasbourg elections.

The received wisdom was that both the local and European elections would be a referendum on Blair and his government. Accordingly, Michael Howard went negative, constructing a campaign built around the slogan Let Down by Labour and seeking to capitalise on Labour's domestic unpopularity. Charles Kennedy did much the same - making his party's opposition to the Iraq war the core of his appeal for town hall and European votes.

At the time, Howard's strategy seemed sound. Only now, with the luxury of hindsight, have the flaws become apparent.

Three things went wrong for him; three things that should ensure a stunning result for UKIP, overshadow the Conservatives' powerful showing in the local elections, take the heat off Blair and provoke fresh Tory jitters.

First, UKIP hired Dick Morris, formerly an adviser to Bill Clinton. He gave the party a simple, clear message designed to resonate with the voters, especially Eurosceptic Conservatives: Britain should pull out of the EU.

Second, it made Robert Kilroy-Silk its frontman. Typically, UKIP leaders are drawn from the swivel-eyed brigade prone to lose public support in exact proportion to the amount of airtime they get. Not so the perma-tanned Kilroy-Silk, the recently dethroned king of daytime TV and a former Labour MP. He campaigned brilliantly, giving the "quit Europe" message glamour and professionalism.

But there is a third - and for Howard more worrying - reason why UKIP has surged to national prominence. Tonight's results are likely to bear an uncanny resemblance to those in 1989 when the Greens dropped out of a clear blue sky and snatched 15 per cent of the vote. Then, as now, the Government was deeply unpopular; then, as now, the Opposition was struggling to persuade the public that they were ready and able to form the next government; and then the Government, under John Major, recovered to win the 1992 election.

But a protest vote has to go somewhere. If the Tories were in election-winning shape, it would have gone to Howard for all Kilroy-Silk's winning smile. The fact that it latched on to UKIP's C-list celebrity circus says as much about the Conservatives as it does about public attitudes to Europe. Of course, UKIP won't poll anything like tonight's predicted high levels in the next general election. At least half its support can be expected to return to its natural home, overwhelmingly Tory. But Howard cannot rely upon a natural subsidence in UKIP support to rescue him on election day. UKIP's success has opened a European flank that he will have to close.

He needs to recognise that the centre of gravity over Europe has been moving in a Eurosceptic direction for at least the past six years - an observation appreciated by his predecessors Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague, whose deliberately inflammatory anti-Brussels rhetoric in the 1999 European campaign crushed the UKIP threat. Pledges to repatriate fishing policy or overseas aid no longer impress a growing section of the electorate increasingly fed up with being bossed around by Brussels.

Howard needs to make clear that under him, a future Tory government will insist upon a new long-term relationship with Brussels and one that halts the federalist ratchet for good. Hardening his anti-European policies and rhetoric is even more important to Howard given that Kilroy-Silk is planning to stand in one of the forthcoming by-elections and keep the UKIP pot boiling in the run-up to the general election. Support of as little as 5 per cent for UKIP at a general election could stop the Tories gaining many Labour seats. Not so much Kilroy was here as Kilroy is here.

Howard is rightly planning a raft of announcements about the public services. But the danger is that as he strives to tackle the vision thing - and re-establish his party as an alternative government - his message will be lost amid a fresh bout of Tory infighting over Europe.

Nick Wood was the Conservative Party's media director, 2001-2003

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) pictured shaking hands with Libyan leader Colonel Moamer Kadhafi on 25 March 2004.  

There's nothing wrong with Labour’s modernisers except how outdated they look

Mark Steel
 

Any chance the other parties will run their election campaigns without any deceit or nastiness?

Nigel Farage
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee