A time bomb does not have to be elegant; it just has to be lethal, primed, and in the right place when the moment comes. Britain’s next general election is set for May 7, 2015. That is likely the day when David Cameron will pay the full price for failing to have defused the revolt on his right.
Britain’s Euroskeptic U.K. Independence party (UKIP) is a poorly run protean mess, unhealthily dependent on the wit, zest, and charisma of its leader, Nigel Farage. And yet in the spirit of Farage (who has survived a plane crash, cancer, and being hit by a VW Beetle), UKIP keeps confounding those who so eagerly draft and redraft its obituary.
The run-up to the election to the European parliament in May was not the party’s most glorious stretch. Sustained battering by mainstream media and mainstream parties—much of it galvanized by UKIP’s heretical emphasis on immigration control—took a toll, and was reinforced by campaign missteps (Google “steel band,” “Croydon,” and “UKIP” for one notably ludicrous instance), including a pre-election radio interview of Farage that went so badly that his spin doctor tried—on air—to bring it to a close.
Less than a week after that interview, Britons went to the ballot box, voting both in the EU poll and, in some regions, local elections too. Results for the latter were counted first. UKIP took 16.5 percent of the popular vote, down from the remarkable 23 percent the party had scored the preceding year, but a reasonable tally considering that these elections were held in less UKIP-friendly territory than in 2013.
The election for the European parliament, however, involved the whole country, and UKIP topped the poll with 27.5 percent, well up from the 16.5 percent it secured in the 2009 EU vote. UKIP may have been assisted by a low turnout (34 percent), but it nonetheless became the first party other than Labour or Conservative to win a national election in over a century. Labour had to make do with regaining (and more) the ground it had lost in 2009 (a Labour government had been presiding over Britain’s slice of the financial crisis), boosting its score from 15.7 percent to 25.4 percent. The Conservatives slumped from first to third place with 23.9 percent. Their coalition partners, the hopelessly Europhile Liberal Democrats, saw their vote cut by roughly half and their team of EU parliament members reduced from 11 to 1, a richly deserved fate marred only by its incompleteness.
But a few days later UKIP ran into a reminder that one barrier remains unbroken. On June 5, it failed yet again to win a seat in the House of Commons. On paper, the constituency—Newark, a pleasant Conservative-voting market town unlikely to be confused with its namesake in New Jersey—looked promising. UKIP had done well there in local elections in 2013 and had headed the poll in that part of Britain in the EU vote. Helping still further, Newark’s (robustly right-wing) Tory MP had just resigned following a lobbying scandal that fit neatly into the UKIP narrative of establishment misrule. Typically, UKIP did not make the most of its opportunity. Perhaps tellingly, Farage opted not to run. Instead the party chose as its candidate a (robustly right-wing) septuagenarian member of the European parliament all too easy to caricature as UKIP at its most primitive.
The result was far from disgraceful: UKIP took over a quarter of the vote, up from the 3 percent or so its candidate managed in 2010. This was despite a concentrated Tory blitz (party workers, activists, and MPs by the hundred were shipped into Newark) that a hollowed-out Conservative party could not hope to reproduce on the national scale that a general election would require. Nevertheless UKIP’s second place (the Tory candidate romped home) meant that the party still had no MPs, a failing frequently cited as a mark of UKIP’s fundamental lack of seriousness. This was only underlined by the convivial Farage’s decision to spend the day before the Newark vote at a tourism conference in Malta. And, yes, he was photographed there in the early hours with a blonde who was not Mrs. Farage. There was a respectable explanation, but . . .
Bellowing at Brussels and, for that matter, 10 Downing Street is an unsurprising response to both EU overreach and the metropolitan liberalism of David Cameron’s government. There are numerous infuriated traditionally Conservative supporters who are prepared to “lend” a vote to UKIP in European and, increasingly, local elections, but will balk at doing anything that risks helping “Red Ed” Miliband’s unsettlingly left-wing Labour party into government.
As they fully understand, voting for UKIP could easily do just that. Under Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system, a protest vote can prove expensive. There’s good evidence to suggest that UKIP ballots (around 3 percent of the total) cost the Tories an absolute majority in the 2010 general election. With UKIP now attracting growing numbers of former Labour voters, the math is trickier than it was, but a higher UKIP percentage would undoubtedly do even greater damage to the Conservatives in 2015.
Making the choice sharper still, David Cameron has committed to an in/out referendum on Britain’s EU membership if he is reelected. Euroskeptics ought to remain, well, skeptical about this, not least because Cameron (a politician too unimaginative to contemplate a breach with Brussels) will try to gull Brits into the pro-EU camp with largely meaningless “concessions” allegedly wrung from the U.K.’s European partners. And he will probably succeed, meaning that Britain’s long European nightmare will continue. On the other hand, Cameron’s referendum would represent a chance, however remote, of a withdrawal, which is better than what Brussels-friendly Labour has on offer: nothing.
And right-of-center voters have another reason to be wary of voting for UKIP next year. “Europe” has evolved as an encapsulation of the broader discontent that many Tories (or former Tories) feel for Cameron’s mushy brand of conservatism, a discontent brilliantly exploited by Farage, playing Mrs. Thatcher’s finest tunes and meaning it. That has taken him a long way. The UKIP leader’s conundrum now is somewhat similar, ironically, to that faced by Cameron a little under a decade ago. Modern Britain is no longer the country that voted (often grudgingly) for the Iron Lady. Cameron tried to deal with that change by dragging the Conservative party to the center, calculating that the Tory right had nowhere else to go. Had it not been for Nigel Farage he might have gotten away with it.
The not unrelated difficulty for Farage is that he has harvested about as much of the right as he can, and thanks to the brutal math of first-past-the-post, that will not be enough to deliver the MPs to make the breakthrough he needs. So UKIP’s leader has attempted to widen his support by reaching out to what he has described as “patriotic old Labour” (put less diplomatically, the white working class), using immigration (Britain has received huge numbers of immigrants from elsewhere in the EU, immigrants that under EU law it is powerless to turn away) as the bridge to get there.
This has been a success, but it has involved downplaying UKIP’s earlier free market vim. The evolution of “red UKIP” is less of a problem for the party’s Conservative refugees than some of UKIP’s intellectual cheerleaders might imagine: Standing up for socialized medicine and generous state pensions plays pretty well with an older, often far from affluent crowd. But throw in some other leftish sub-currents, add the harsher edge to the party’s immigration rhetoric, and subtract some Thatcherite grace notes (talk of a flat tax has, for example, disappeared), and it becomes easy to suspect that a good number (especially on the upscale side of the social divide) of UKIP’s once-Conservative or libertarian-inclined voters will return to the Tory fold, particularly with Ed dread to push them there.
But neither this, nor the unappealing Miliband’s failure to click with the wider British electorate, nor the U.K.’s improving economic performance is likely to save Cameron. Britain’s embarrassingly outdated constituency boundaries favor Labour, which only has to win some 35 percent of the national vote to prevail. With the Liberal Democrats floundering, that modest target ought to be one Labour can hit despite recent stumbles in the opinion polls. UKIP meanwhile can expect to win few (if any) actual MPs once the general election comes round, but the party’s share of the poll will not sink back to that 3 percent grabbed by UKIP in 2010: UKIP—and the loyalty it can expect—is now entrenched too deep for that. And it is still the Conservative party that will miss its defectors most. At this late stage, it’s not clear what the Tories can do to entice enough of them back in time.
Andrew Stuttaford works in the international financial markets and writes frequently about cultural and political issues.