The Tories are around ten points behind in the polls, but they still display an admirable amount of bluster. They stride about the Commons as if they owned the place (although they did that in opposition too). Most still (publicly at least) refuse to countenance the idea that in 2015 Ed Miliband could be Prime Minister. They puff out their chests at the idea. They snort.*
And of course, despite their bluster, they’re right to say that Labour’s position is not as strong as it appears. This week we’re defending three “safe” Labour seats in by-elections and there’s a credible threat in two of them. But – tellingly – it’s not the Tories we’re worried about. It’s not mainstream parties at all. It’s Respect and UKIP – the parties of the fringes. The parties of disillusionment with politics.
UKIP are of particular interest to the Tories. The widespread belief is that all of their voters are Tories who got lost somehow on the way to the ballot box, and if only Cameron could woo them back into the Tory fold, there’s a parliamentary majority to be won.
Tory vice-chairman Michael Fabricant went one step further yesterday, when he advocated a formal pact with UKIP ahead of the next election. According to Fabricant:
“The Conservative Party might well win the 2015 General Election on our own.But a pact with Ukip on clear terms could deliver 20 extra seats.”
There are a few leaps of faith for the Tories here. To deliver 20 extra seats would require the vast majority of 2010 Tories to stick with the party, and for the vast majority of 2010 UKIP voters to switch to the Tories on masse. In my experience the electorate are rarely as compliant as such a strategy would require. (Although of course, the same could be said for Labour’s apparent Labour+ 2010 Lib Dems strategy for 2015).
What Fabricant has really shown is the desperation in the Tory ranks. For once, the mask has slipped. To take a punt on working with UKIP, with no gaurantee of success (and a potentially party splitting EU referendum surely added to the mix) seems a remarkable gamble for 20 seats.
A pre-election pact is a sign of weakness, not strength, for the Tory Party.
More remarkable still are attempts by Downing Street to claim that Fabricant’s pact plan isn’t official party policy. They may have forgotten, so I’m happy to remind them. Michael Fabricant is the Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party with responsibility for campaigning. Arguing that he doesn’t speak for the Tories is ludicrous, even by the standards of Downing Street denials.
Perhaps most interesting for Labour people is the simplistic way in which the Tories talk about UKIP and their voters. They talk about them as if they are aggrieved that they are “splitting the vote”. It’s the way Labour once spoke about the Lib Dems. But as we found out to our cost, these parties that infuriate you and “split your vote” can often turn out to be very different from the simple caricatures we have of them. One day the Tories will discover that about UKIP too. And that the only way to win isn’t to form a pact.
It’s to win over their voters.
* – in fairness there are a number of Tories who take the Labour threat seriously, but pragmatic, reality-based Tories appear to be a rare breed at present.