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Cameron Cornered

Are the Tories already doomed?

Jun 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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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.

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