Through no particular merit of its own, the UK Independence Party (Ukip) is suddenly basking in the sort of sympathetic coverage that may never come its way again. The decision of Rotherham social services to remove children from a foster family, apparently because they deemed the parents' membership of the Eurosceptic party incompatible with fostering children from elsewhere in Europe, drew howls of indignation from all mainstream parties and from a public, rightly, hostile to fostering being politicised.
Among those protesting most loudly were Labour politicians, including the leader, Ed Miliband, who clearly sensed a risk that the party could be tainted by association, given that Rotherham is run by Labour. With a by-election on Thursday – called following the resignation of Denis MacShane over expenses fiddling – the fostering case compounds the possibility that hitherto loyal Labour voters may look for somewhere else to go. A safe Labour seat has started to look less so.
But Rotherham is not where the rise of Ukip either began, or – probably – ends. The fostering case has ensured the party a positive hearing for as long as it can be strung out, but recent by-elections and opinion polls show that Ukip was already the beneficiary of several separate and related trends.
One of these is the rise of Euroscepticism, as the euro crisis is blamed for many of the Government's current woes and the arrival of new European workers is held to account for a supposed jobs shortage. Another is the general discontent of the Tory grassroots, who blame David Cameron for selling out to the political centre – on Europe, as on much else. A third is the decline in support for the Liberal Democrats because of the promises it forsook to take part in the Coalition. And a fourth is the added value brought to the party by its media-friendly leader, Nigel Farage. For all these reasons, Ukip is riding high.
Which is why the call we report from Michael Fabricant MP, a vice-chairman of the party and chief of campaigning, should not be dismissed as mere bluster. He is proposing a pact with Ukip under which the Conservatives would promise a referendum on EU membership in return for Ukip giving up plans to field candidates at the next general election. In so doing, Mr Fabricant is admitting the damage that Ukip could inflict on the Tories, especially in the south, and suggesting a way to limit it.
Whether such a pact would be in Ukip's interests, however, is questionable. This is partly because Mr Cameron is already more or less committed to including an EU referendum in the party's next manifesto, without requiring any concessions from Ukip. And partly because Ukip would thereby give up hope of having its own MPs at Westminster. It would have to judge whether that was a sacrifice worth making in return for a chance of campaigning for its central idea: that Britain should leave the EU.
The dilemma that would face Ukip, however, pales into insignificance compared with the one already facing the Conservatives. Centrism was part of Mr Cameron's appeal to the country at the last election, and even then he could not secure an overall majority. Even if Ukip were to leave the electoral field and the Tories swung to the right, that might make an overall majority less, rather than more, likely – especially if the economic force was by then with Labour and Mr Miliband was starting to look a credible prime minister. In sum, Mr Fabricant has highlighted the Conservatives' plight over Europe, but his proposed pact is no solution.