Brian Monteith: Avoiding EU debate could be a Cameron error

CONSERVATIVES need to take UKIP very seriously, as it is quite capable of cutting Tory numbers, writes Brian Monteith

CONSERVATIVES need to take UKIP very seriously, as it is quite capable of cutting Tory numbers, writes Brian Monteith

Last week David Cameron was challenged to a public debate about Britain’s European Union membership by Nigel Farage MEP, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). At the time of writing Downing Street had not responded, preferring, it would seem, to avoid giving the challenge any credibility; but such an approach is out of date, for disaffected Conservatives have been investing credibility in UKIP for quite a while now.

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Later in the week the Prime Minister gave an interview where he said he could never campaign for Britain to leave the EU. What, not even if negotiation of new treaties as a result of the eurozone crisis creates a federal system without the opt-outs David Cameron wants? Such assertions make the Prime Minister UKIP’s best British recruiting sergeant.

The Tory haemorrhage to UKIP is a serious one. The private polling of Tory financier and strategist, Lord Ashcroft – using an extraordinarily large sample of 8,000 voters – found that of those who voted Conservative in the 2010 general election some 34 per cent are no longer committed to supporting the party again; 14 per cent don’t know how they’ll vote, 10 per cent will vote for UKIP and 10 per cent will vote for Labour, the Liberal Democrats or someone else. Thus, UKIP may take as many votes from the Conservatives as all the other parties put together can.

In number terms that would add over one million votes on top of UKIP’s 2010 UK election total of 919,471 – not allowing for attracting voters from other parties, first-time voters or those who didn’t bother in 2010. While concentration of votes is crucial (the Greens won one seat with 265,243 votes, the SNP won six seats with 491,386 votes, but BNP won none with 564,321 votes) in such a circumstance the likelihood that UKIP would not win any constituencies must be low and this would change the dynamics of Westminster by putting immense pressure on the Conservatives to protect their flank.

By-elections offer false foundations for predictions in general elections, nevertheless the second place achieved by UKIP in the Barnsley Central by-election of 2011 – beating the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats – offers a straw in the wind for the by-election that will follow if former Liberal Democrat Cabinet minister Chris Huhne is found guilty of perverting the course of justice and forced to resign his seat.

Huhne is seeking to have the indictment quashed at a hearing this week but if that fails he and his former wife face a trial in the first week of October. The verdict would be known just as the Tory party conference gets underway. While the date for any by-election would be in the gift of the Liberal Democrats, it would need to be held within six months and it would be reasonable to expect that UKIP is already preparing for that eventuality.

Who would be UKIP’s candidate be? Well it is surely no coincidence that Farage visited the seat last week. Eastleigh was a solid Conservative seat from 1955 until it was lost in the 1994 by-election to the Liberal Democrats following the bizarre death of its new Tory MP, Stephen Milligan. The UKIP candidate in that by-election was none other than a young Farage. Last week Farage said his visit was “like coming home”.

He polled only 952 votes on that occasion, just ahead of Screaming Lord Sutch, but we can safely expect any UKIP candidate to put pressure on the Tories and Liberal Democrats that would normally expect to vie for the marginal seat.

It has all the makings of being one of those by-elections that could rock the political system, for it would do what all the improvements in UKIP’s vote share and electoral performance have not yet done, put a directly elected UKIP politician in Westminster.

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As with any political strategy there is a Plan B, and for UKIP that is the longer term goal of building upon its second place in the 2009 European Elections where Labour could only manage an embarrassing third. Coming first would be incredible but remaining second would importantly maintain its momentum for the possibility is that Labour and the Conservatives would swap places and this time it would be David Cameron who would be highly embarrassed – the year before the 2015 general election.

With polls regularly showing a public majority in favour of having a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union (ten days ago one newspaper put it at 70 per cent) and the same surveys revealing a growing majority against remaining as EU members UKIP’s message of having a straight Yes/No vote is landing on fertile soil. How this might affect a Scottish independence referendum is now the subject of much speculation.

Nigel Farage’s oratorial demolition of European politicians from former President Sarkozy on the Europhile right to social democrat President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso, as well as euro currency bankers and officials, regularly goes viral on YouTube, gaining audiences approaching a million that Cameron or Nick Clegg could only dream of.

In Scotland UKIP has struggled to make the same scale of impact, probably because its obvious appeal to disaffected Conservatives is like aiming at a target that is getting smaller even as you get closer to it. Nevertheless, if UKIP can make an impact on British politics either directly, by getting Farage or a group of MPs elected, or by influencing the Conservatives so much that they are forced to change their policies on Europe, then its appeal might grow enough to attract support by the 2016 Holyrood elections.

Finding a good local and well known candidate and using a second vote strategy, such as not standing any first past the post candidates but appealing to electors, but especially Conservatives, for their second vote might then reap rewards.

For Farage’s UKIP the next six months could be significant, and the impact upon Scotland no less so.

• Brian Monteith is policy director of