In the 1970s the Conservative Party could still claim a membership of over a million. Two decades before that it was over three million and the Young Conservatives provided the principal dating agency for the sons and daughters of the aspirant middle classes.
Today that membership has shriveled to 134,000. It has halved since David Cameron became leader. This is an astonishing achievement, even taking into account the natural disillusionment and natural wastage of incumbency. What appears to have happened is that the true blue base of the Tory Party has simply walked off the pitch. A good proportion latterly have found their natural home in UKIP, and see Nigel Farage as the Conservative that the distinctly Blairite Cameron is not. Disdainful of gay marriage, unimpressed at the constant genuflection to a leader and party they really do despise; Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats and hostile to Cameron and Hague’s sabre rattling over Syria, these Tories find their cause championed by the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph – and Nigel Farage.
Despite rising Tory confidence that they are on the road to recovery at the next General Election, there are at least fifty hard-core Tory refuseniks on the parliamentary benches, who will not be swayed or cajoled even by organised away-day love-ins in Chipping Norton. These are the MPs who have successfully led rebellions over Europe, and who see UKIP, not as enemies but in the same way that many leftwing Labour MPs used to view the old Communist Party – as a necessary bulwark and anchor.
Much of the commentariat are currently writing off Nigel Farage and UKIP. They argue that he and his party are a busted flush. They are foolish in the extreme. For just at the time when the Labour Party will be pre-occupying itself with an entirely unnecessary and potentially damaging Special Conference in the spring, UKIP will be ramping up for the European elections – elections that it is likely to perform well in. Knowing this, and knowing that much of the Conservative Party sees UKIP as a sister party and the Liberal Democrats as mortal enemies, that Belizean buccaneer, Lord Ashcroft, commissioned a detailed poll of the marginal constituencies. Of course the marginals have been one of his hobby horses for years, but then he knows that in ‘first past the post’ Britain, in elections with declining turn-outs, that General Elections are won and lost in them.
Here is what Conservative commentator and former Scotsman Editor; Iain Martin had to say about Lord Ashcroft’s poll in a recent article in the Telegraph:
“But look at the detail of that giant poll undertaken by Lord Ashcroft at the weekend. It is one of the most significant pieces of political research published in years. In essence it shows that in the seats that could make the most difference at the election Labour has a large lead, regardless of Miliband’s difficulties. It is not that he has garnered much new support; his lead in those marginals comes from the Tories leaking support to Ukip. As I keep on pointing out, Ukip does need to poll anything like the levels of support it is getting in national polls now. It got three per cent last time, more than 900,000 votes, with no profile, a poor leader and Farage nearly getting himself killed in a plane crash. If Farage even just doubles their support, getting, say six per cent and almost two million votes, and it is disproportionately concentrated in seats the Tories need, then it is good night Cameron; close the door behind you on the way out.
At the top of this piece I asked what the Tories can do about UKIP. I really don’t know.”
Some people do know. This is a question that is very much in the process of being answered.
Informal discussions are taking place behind closed doors that are intended to deliver an informal Tory/UKIP pact by the time of the next election. The pressure for this to bear fruit will intensify as Tory strategists do the number crunching after the European elections. Even taking into account the effect that the prospect of a Labour victory might have on Tories tempted to vote for UKIP by the time of the General Election, as Iain Martin points out, UKIP, doesn’t need that many votes in marginal constituencies to deprive Cameron of a majority.
But Farage and UKIP have learned their lessons. They will not simply stand aside where Tory MPs (and the odd Labour Euro-sceptic) have made the right noises over Europe. This time, I understand from informed sources, that UKIP are determined to drive a much tougher bargain. They will be helpful to the Tories of course in lasering in on the common enemy – the Liberal Democrats. For, of their top six target seats, seats where UKIP are focusing the bulk of their resources already, three are held by Liberal Democrats; Eastleigh, North Devon and Yeovil. This will also be the election where Nigel Farage hopes finally to make it into Parliament, having seen his hopes dashed by the intervention of the pro-European Independent candidate, John Stevens in Buckingham at the last General Election. Currently Farage’s best hopes for a seat lie in the retiring Nicholas Soames’ Mid Sussex seat and South Thanet in Kent currently held by one of the other few remaining pro EU Conservatives, Laura Sandys (whose father was Duncan Sandys).
But the pre and post election Tory UKIP pact being informally discussed will not only be aimed at Liberal Democrats and the handful of pro EU Tory MPs, it will be constructed around a UKIP demand for a clear run at twenty five to thirty winnable seats, in return for Nigel Farage’s party promising not to run elsewhere in those marginal constituencies identified in Lord Ashcroft’s poll.
Such is Nigel Farage’s brimming confidence, that he is said to be seriously entertaining the idea that he will become a Minister in the next Government.
Far fetched? Well who could ever have believed that Vince Cable would be a Minister in Tory/ Lib Dem Coalition?