A man many of you will have never heard of by the name of John Strafford has reacted rather badly to David Cameron’s “assault on constituency associations” this week, when the prime minister said that Tory MPs should basically not listen to their Eurosceptic members and instead hop on the Remain coach with the vast majority of his frontbench (this was picked up in the Telegraph yesterday). Mr Strafford has warned the prime minister that this will create disgruntled Conservatives and that the “obvious home for disgruntled Conservatives will be UKIP”.
Now, I happen to know who John Strafford is – if you worked in and around the electoral reform scene for the time that I did, you couldn’t have helped but do so. He is the most passionate Tory supporter of electoral reform the world has ever seen, and given the rarity of such a thing, was heavily courted by the movement. He’s also a passionate Eurosceptic – and he’s also wrong about the whole Tories bouncing off to UKIP thing.
Why am I so sure? Because we saw this play out in the May 2015 general election already. In the years building up to the election, all the talk in Westminster was around how UKIP was going to deny the Tories a majority. Conservatives talked in fear of it, Labour MPs and peers in hope. And then? UKIP got 13% of the vote – and the Tories got a parliamentary majority anyhow. The reason this happened is simple: UKIP hardly took any votes off the Tories at all, at least once all voter churn is dealt with. This is because – and I say this as a non-supporter of either party – the United Kingdom Independence Party and the Conservative and Unionist Party are two very, very different beasts, and thus have very different audiences.
The Conservatives are all about preserving the status quo; that big ideas and changes are usually counter-productive. They are more than just the establishment party – they are the establishment. UKIP meanwhile are all about massive, quasi-revolutionary change. Their entire narrative is about how Britain is on the verge of catastrophe and various things need to happen right away or we’re all fucked. All this is why a Tory prime minister supporting the idea of remaining in the EU, when looked at through the lens of the history of the Conservative Party, isn’t actually weird at all – a Tory prime minister supporting the status quo is in fact the default position. So when I talk of the parties going after different audiences, what I mean is this: the Tories are attempting more than anything to attract the average person on the street who doesn’t care very much about politics but doesn’t want their taxes to go up. Meanwhile, UKIP is trying to attract angry people who feel let down by the system; who are almost obsessed with politics, albeit in a fairly unsophisticated fashion. They are almost opposite in terms of the audiences they are trying to reach, the more I think about it.
There are other problems with the likelihood that we’ll see mass Tory defections to UKIP coming to fruition in the wake of the EU referendum. Such as the fact that UKIP are, despite their raison d’etre about to happen within the next six months, running out of steam massively. They desperately needed a change of leadership post-May 2015, something denied to them by the hubris of Farage. They continue to poll impressively, but it all has the sense of a deflating balloon. Besides, even if there is a UKIP resurgence, it will be Labour voters they scoop up, not Tory ones. Again, we saw that last May, and all of Corbyn’s perceived anti-flag and emblem stuff will only have made that trend worse since.
Perhaps John Strafford, a very conservative man in many ways but also one who has never been afraid to go against the grain of Tory thinking, will be so outraged by Cameron’s Remain posturing he chucks it all in and joins UKIP. But he’ll be one of the few, I suspect.