How to handle fringe parties is always a challenge for any party in government, but David Cameron’s Conservative Party have made a spectacular balls-up in their handling of the UKIP threat. Nigel Farage’s Eurosceptics represent arguably the greatest threat to the Tories at the moment and have only apparently got stronger as the results from Friday’s council elections filtered through. By late afternoon, UKIP leader Nigel Farage was able to sit back and wax lyrical about his party’s “remarkable results” while Cameron was forced to plead with disillusioned Tory voters that he’d “try really hard” to win them back.
Particularly embarrassing for the PM was the column in Friday's Daily Telegraph by the defeated Conservative councillor in the South Waterside ward of Hampshire County council, claiming that “no one believes a word Cameron says,” and raising doubts over his promise for a referendum on the European Union. All in all, not a good end to the week for Cameron or the Conservatives.
And yet, it could all have been so easily avoided. UKIP are a fringe party. A loud and annoying one, yes, but a fringe party all the same; Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s ‘noisy neighbours’ quip at local rivals Manchester City comes to mind here. With a little more guile and a little more class, Cameron’s Conservatives could have nipped the UKIP threat in the bud weeks ago.
Sure, there are Tory voters disillusioned with Cameron’s Conservatives. But comments like Ken Clarke’s “clowns” affront, the Tories played right into UKIP’s hands.
What the Conservatives would have done well to bear in mind is that UKIP are currently at the zenith of their powers; they are a fringe party currently doing well because the government could be doing better and as such, their experience of frontline politics at this level is strictly limited. Thus, the best thing Cameron could possibly have done is to sit back, hand it to UKIP and send out a clear message of ‘you want it? Well, come and take it, then.’
High pressure political situations when great power and great rewards are at stake tend to make or break parties. The example of a certain party currently in the coalition government, at the last general election, springs to mind. See that party’s humiliating result in the South Shields by-election for further evidence of how pressure can make parties crumble.
The most sensible thing I heard on the cavern of insensibility and barely believable rants where you’re not quite sure if the author is being ironic or not that is Twitter was that ‘given that UKIP are gaining a lot of votes from people of anti-establishment sympathies, it probably isn’t a great idea for the Tories to be behaving in such in establishmentarian manner towards the party.’ To be frank, I think most of us capable of any political foresight whatsoever could have seen UKIP’s widespread success in the local council elections coming.
With his all-too-obviously pugnaciously panicking attitude towards UKIP, Cameron and his party have not succeeded in winning voters back to the Tories, but they have succeeded in making even more would-be Tory voters doubt the party more than they already did and believe that UKIP are now the answer.
The PM has been forced into what is swiftly becoming his trademark U-turn strategy and has even had to renounce his previous assessment of UKIP as “fruitcakes”. There’s nothing wrong with taking a fringe party seriously, but it’s probably best to do it before they’ve stolen a huge chunk of your voters and created blind panic throughout your party.
The worst of it is that this is not just a minor blip for Cameron; serious questions are now being asked by Tories up and down the country of the PM’s commitment to a referendum on the EU. Would UKIP handle the whole thing better? If you’re a Conservative unhappy at what you perceive to be a soulless PR man discarding your party’s traditional values, then yes, absolutely. A black Friday for Dave.
‘The day UKIP became a real force in British politics,’ was the verdict of BBC Political editor Nick Robinson on Friday afternoon. Perhaps. And it could all have been so easily avoided.
By Alex Shilling