What to do about Ukip? As its members gather for their annual conference the party is coming under more media scrutiny than ever. Which is how it should be. After its leader, Nigel Farage, blithely dismissed Ukip’s own manifesto for the 2010 election, he promised new costed policies that reached beyond the usual stuff about immigration and Europe.
What Mr Farage’s party says about tax, the NHS, schools and the railways matters, because it may form a small but crucial bloc in a hung parliament; and, more pressingly, because the “right” policies can attract voters, especially from the Conservative Party. The media will certainly know what to do about Ukip; hold its policies, its sometimes eccentric supporters and its leader up to the light. Ukip has not always passed the fruitcake test; it will need to be credible if its hopes of influencing politics are to be fulfilled.
Ukip attracts votes from all parties and none – it even boasts an MEP in Scotland – but it is David Cameron who remains in the greatest quandary about the ’kippers. With the Clacton by-election in just under a fortnight, Ukip seems on course to claim its first Commons representation.
That would be a breakthrough moment. Ukip was, and is, a primal scream from a section of the electorate that feels left behind by globalisation and modern Britain. They, to borrow a phrase from William Hague’s tenure as Conservative leader, feel as though they are in a foreign land. That is not to condone the apparent racism or xenophobia that sometimes pokes its ugly snout through the mask of Ukip respectability; it is merely to try to understand the cause of its support. Now they will find they have a voice in Parliament.
Mr Cameron should also be worried about his own parliamentary candidates. As we reveal, an increasing number may negotiate “informal” deals with Ukip. There is little Mr Cameron or his party officials can do about that. But what do they do if they uncover active attempts by Conservative candidates to do deals? Or if Tories offer themselves as explicitly Conservative-Ukip joint candidates? If they expel them, which Mr Cameron has threatened to, and run “official” Conservatives, they will just split the vote and let Labour or the Liberal Democrats in. If Mr Cameron acquiesces in such arrangements he becomes a prisoner of Mr Farage, also a very uncomfortable place to be.
The best guess for next year is that there will be some messy things going on in parts of the country, and the Conservative leadership will have a hard time trying to control it, just as John Major found. But just as Tory divisions and disarray helped New Labour and Tony Blair come to power in 1997, so now do their antics make it more likely that Ed Miliband will find himself in No 10 by this time next year. In which case there will be no referendum on the EU, and Tory and a few Ukip MPs will find themselves screaming uselessly from the opposition benches as yet another Euro-integrationist treaty gets rammed through Parliament.
Which brings us to one last thought about Ukip and the British political system. To use an overused phrase, the first-past-the-post system for elections to the Commons is no longer “fit for purpose”. The electorate stubbornly refuses to vote in sufficient numbers for the two main parties for either of them to form a stable majority government – supposedly the whole point of our system. Electoral reform may soon return to their agenda. That at least will suit Ukip.