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

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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