Over the last few days, in reaction to Carswell winning UKIP’s first democratically earned seat in parliament, the Tories have been going slightly apeshit, falling over themselves to seem more electable to the very people they described as loonies and fruitcakes not all that long ago. Those being people who are seriously considering voting UKIP at the next general election.
David Cameron promised tougher welfare restrictions on EU migrants; Jacob Rees-Mogg and Brian Binley talked to whomever would listen about how the Tories need an electoral pact with UKIP (presenting Farage with a fantastic sound bite opportunity, which he duly took up); Grant Shapps has spent to weekend trying to ‘Kip it up on Twitter. Boris said over the weekend during his Marr interview that “it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot between us”, the us of course meaning the Conservatives and UKIP.
The old adage that the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again even though it never works does not seem to have filtered through to Tory high command. They still do not seem to understand the UKIP insurgence even slightly. UKIP have several advantages in trying to be UKIP that the Tories will never have. One, they actually are UKIP. And that sounds facetious, so allow me to expand. Part of UKIP’s appeal is that they are fresh and new, and furthermore are seen to stand outside of the normal Westminster running of things. How much that will change if they get further Westminster representation remains to be seen, but for now the “People’s Army” shtick is getting through to their target audience. The Tories meanwhile, whether they like it or not, are about as mainstream as mainstream gets. They are the establishment that the ‘Kippers are railing against.
UKIP also have the freedom that comes with knowing that they cannot form the next government, a luxury the Conservative Party does not have as one of the “big two”. They can say things, like they did in Heywood and Middleton, such as “UKIP are the only party you can trust to save the NHS” and get away with it. This is the advantage given to fringe parties.
So instead of constantly trying to fight UKIP on UKIP’s home ground, I don’t get why the Tories don’t fight the battle against UKIP on territory they know they can win on. The Conservatives should talk more candidly about Europe and Britain’s role in the EU. Cameron hoped he could make his pledge and be done with it. That hasn’t worked and the Tories just need to admit this to themselves. Cameron clearly wants Britain to remain in the EU and I can pretty much figure out why – because leaving the EU represents a massive risk, a huge, unpredictable change, and as a Conservative he instinctively feels against taking such colossal gambles. This is a narrative that could have some salience with a lot of Tory voters – or potential Tory voters.
But Cameron hasn’t made this argument because he’s scared of the right of his party. He’s afraid of that portion of the Tory fold going UKIP, of a split. Well, that split is well and truly underway, so they had better come up with the ways in which Tory values are not UKIP values – whatever Boris thinks about them being alike. Because if there is no real difference between the Conservative Party and UKIP other than one is seen as out of touch and the other is seen as new and exciting, then the oldest party in British politics, one that dominated the 20th century, could be in a lot of trouble.