David Cameron has said he thinks schools should teach mainly in imperial measurements rather than in nasty, foreign, and undeniably French metric.
Funny that. It’s almost like he’d had spies at the rowdy Conservative conference fringe event the night before – staged by smokers’ rights campaigner Forest and Conservatives for Liberty – where I raised this very topic in a speech on Europe. I noted the irony that even though we defeated Napoleon in 1815 and Hitler in 1945 we still seem to have inherited half their policies all the same. From Hitler, inter alia, we got the clampdown on smoking and the obsession with environmentalism. From Napoleon, among other things, we got the metric measurement system – despite the fact that most of us continue stubbornly to think in pints and miles rather than half litres and kilometres.
Prime Ministers don’t make these casual asides by accident. Clearly, what’s going on here is that Cameron has been advised to chuck a few gobbets of red meat to the more reactionary wing of the Tory party: to the kind of people, in other words, who feel badly let down by four years of Cameron’s dogged centrism and who are now sorely tempted to throw in their lot with UKIP instead.
We heard similar right-wing mood music in Chancellor George Osborne’s speech yesterday: the freeze on benefits; the emphasis on tax cuts rather than spending rises; the renewed commitment to tackling the deficit. I was reminded of the chats Osborne and I used to have in the playground when our children were briefly at the same school together. “Just you wait till we form a majority government: then you’ll see what real Tories we are…” he used to say.
As a natural small ‘c’ conservative, I have little problem with this rightwards turn. (Though I think this imperial stuff is forgettable nonsense: yes it’s all jolly and jingoistic but let’s get real – the 30cm ruler is here to stay and it’s not like we’re going to go back to pre-decimal currency). But let us not be under any illusions as to why this is happening. It is not because the Cameron claque has suddenly realised that they were right-wing all along and that actually, come to think of it, they really do believe that the state has got far too big and that we’d all be better off outside Europe. It’s because their minds have been concentrated by opinion polls showing that, thanks to UKIP splitting their vote, the Conservatives are on course to lose the next election to Ed Miliband’s socialists.
This was the excellent point made by former Telegraph editor and Margaret Thatcher biographer Charles Moore yesterday at was probably the most invigorating and talked-about fringe event of the entire Conservative conference – a Bruges group discussion entitled UKIP and the Future of the Conservative Party. (All right, I’m biased – I was on the panel too, together with Jacob Rees Mogg, the Conservative MP whose outspokenness and rebelliousness has led some (erroneously) to speculate that he might one day jump ship to UKIP. But we’ll be posting the footage up on Breitbart later so you can judge for yourself how good it was).
Moore (a loyal Conservative) explained how torn he felt on the UKIP issue. On the one hand, he regretted the impractical purist zeal which had split the vote of the right, which saw no space for compromise, and which thus in all likelihood was going to lose the Conservatives the next election. On the other hand, he recognised that over the last two or three decades, the ONLY thing that had stopped the Conservatives getting deeper and deeper in bed with the pro-EU establishment was countervailing pressure from the angry public. Fear, in other words, not wisdom or commonsense, is and always has been the primary motivator of the Conservative party’s right-wing conscience.
Inevitably, the subject of a Tory/UKIP pact came up – as mooted by Conservative MEP Dan Hannan. The panel all agreed that this was the right’s best chance of defeating Ed Miliband and winning a resounding majority at the May 2015 general election. But we also agreed, for various reasons, that it was a near-impossibility. Cameron won’t countenance it and UKIP loathe and distrust Cameron so much that would never consider it while he’s in charge.
So where, exactly, does that leave us?
My own view is this. A Miliband interregnum will be a total nightmare. Men will say openly that Christ and his saints are asleep. The economy will go to rack and ruin. The Schadenfreude we will enjoy at the humiliation of David Cameron’s Tories-lite will be more than offset by the immiseration of the nation and by our inevitable descent – under the fanatically Europhile Miliband – into ever-closer European Union.
Our best hope of averting this is a UKIP-Conservative pact which is most unlikely to happen. Therefore our next best short term hope is that under ongoing intense pressure from UKIP, Cameron will choose – as he so often does – to save his skin at the very last minute by renouncing his mushy centrism, adopting a much much tougher line on Europe, and persuading all those voters flirting with UKIP to think again.
The moral for the Conservatives is that if they lose the next election they will have only themselves to blame, for they have it within their power, even now, to turn the tide.
The moral for UKIP is to go on doing exactly what they’re doing. Put the fear of God into the Conservatives; fight like you mean it: it’s the only way.