Brian Monteith: Ukip bubble could easily burst

Much-trumpeted defections to Nigel Farage’s party mean nothing if they can’t win seats, writes Brian Monteith

Mark Reckless, by defecting to Ukip from the Tories, is playing for very high stakes, but so is his leader, Nigel Farage. Picture: Getty

It’s now over ten days since we voted in the referendum and received an unequivocal result from a record turnout. It is now well past the time under the terms of the Edinburgh Agreement that we all accept and endorse that result. Rather than continuing the constitutional debate at an intensity that was required before the vote, it’s time to start talking about the problems Scotland has that can be solved using the powers Holyrood already enjoys.

Yes, 44.7 per cent of those Scots who voted said Yes – but 46.5 per cent of those Glaswegians who voted said No – and I do not see them holding rallies, boycotting businesses that supported independence, insulting Yes supporters for being tricked or acting as if they were robbed. There is no injustice here. Scotland got the referendum result it voted for, so why are those who complain about not getting governments we vote for not accepting the outcome?

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Of course people are free to analyse and learn from the result, and yes we need to discuss what further change is required to strengthen Holyrood so it can take on greater responsibility and be held fully accountable for its actions. Nevertheless, given the convincing rejection of independence, I have no doubt that the vast majority of the electorate will be turning off from more constitutional wrangling and viewing such behaviour as self-indulgent and a further example of the disconnect between politicians and the public.

Daily there is growing evidence of a widening gulf between the electorate and our political establishment, of decisions being taken that are out of touch with the everyday experiences of ordinary folk or that appreciate what they are going through to make ends meet. In part, this fed the disenchantment with Westminster politicians that encouraged many people to vote Yes. They wanted a change and have tired of believing that our UK leaders are sincere about delivering it. This disenchantment is not exclusive to Scots, however: it was the same sense of a need for change – and the unwillingness of the Prime Minister to countenance it on issues like parliamentary recall – that encouraged Douglas Carswell to defect from the Conservatives to Ukip.

In some respects the situation of the Conservatives is surprising. Although there has been economic austerity, it has been very limited, nothing like the 30 per cent cut in teachers’ pay in Greece or up to 30 per cent cut in youth unemployment benefit in Ireland. In fact, the coalition can point to many achievements: private sector employment growth is impressive, unemployment continues to fall, the economy continues to improve. And yet the rise of Ukip continues, demonstrating how the disaffected across the rest of the UK are also looking for a voice.

I attended the Ukip conference in Doncaster for two days as a guest speaker at a Global Britain fringe event and will do the same at Birmingham’s Tory conference this week. I fully expect to find a wholly different atmosphere but not just because of Saturday’s double whammy of the defection of Mark Reckless or the resignation of Tory minister Brooks Newmark. The defections of Carswell and Reckless are a symptom of Ukip’s popularity, not a cause of it: they reflect that Ukip is beginning to look and feel a more comfortable home for many Conservatives than the new model party run by David Cameron for the last nine years (yes, nine!). As an old hand of Conservative conferences (I remember as a youth watching the 16-year-old William Hague at Blackpool in 1977), at times I felt transported back to the way conferences used to be. It was bustling almost exclusively with members excited about politics, there was a welcome lack of lobbyists, campaigning NGOs and big corporate stands. Despite the tweeting by critics not attending but alleging homophobia and racism, the evidence on the ground was absent. It would be going a stretch to say Ukip is a multi-cultural party (mainly because it is demographically an oldies’ party), but it had prominent Asian and openly homosexual MEPs speaking from its platform and a lively debate amongst its members arguing different opinions on political correctness.

Indeed, due to the growth of Ukip and its greater diversity – no longer is it composed of mainly retired colonels or swivel-eyed loons (if it ever was) – it now faces the challenges of success. Firstly its old guard, those who have been members since its inception 21 years ago, will find younger members looking for positions of power and influence. Tensions within the party about personalities and policy are certain to arise and will need managed.

Secondly, it is all very well taking MPs and votes away from the Tories, but if going to bed with Nigel Farage is not to mean wakening up with Ed Miliband at the general election, then Ukip has to show real evidence of winning Labour seats. It badly needs a Labour defection or a by-election victory in a Labour seat to prove that voting Ukip means getting Ukip.

There is already evidence that Ukip is seeking to offer some policies for the left – such as the idea floated of a higher VAT rate on “luxury goods”, like exclusive handbags and shoes. That Nigel Farage has already ruled it out so long as he is leader confirms the debate going on behind the scenes. At one fringe meeting, two MEPs openly argued about the direction of policy and later there was a bread-roll fight between dinner tables mocking each other for being Hayekian or Kensian.

Unfortunately for Nigel Farage, the defection of Mark Reckless brings its own problems, for it emphasises to Labour voters that Ukip is an attractive home for Conservatives and, more worryingly, if Reckless does not win in his seat back then there is a very real chance the Ukip bubble will burst in the eyes of the media. A victory in Clacton will then seem so long in the past that the focus will move back to Cameron versus Miliband. The Rochford and Strood by-election must therefore become the most bitterly fought contest in recent memory – with the potential to determine what happens at May’s general election.

It is very high stakes for Reckless – but it will be a nailbiter for Farage, Cameron and Miliband too.