Last week’s defection a major Tory donor, on the back the defection of Members of Parliament Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, has reignited the debate over whether both UKIP and the Conservative parties wouldn’t be better served by putting aside their differences and embarking on some form of electoral pact.
Of course it wasn’t meant to be like this. Cameron must have hoped that a by promising a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union he’d shoot his UKIP fox. But the European Elections and UKIP’s continued growing support is proving him wrong. Tory HQ have fallen into the trap of believing their own propaganda; that UKIP are a one-trick pony and could be put down with an anti-Euro platform. Tory strategists must now be frantically calculating how many seats UKIP are going to cost them in 2015. UKIP, remember, only need to take a few thousand votes in marginals to deprive the Conservative candidate a seat, something they can easily do across the country. Even modest UKIP predictions look like enough to deprive Cameron of a majority.
The logic of a pact is beautiful in its simplicity. Farage and Cameron would agree not to field opposing candidates in selected areas. The idea being that Tories in an area with only a UKIP candidate would vote purple, with UKIP supporters voting blue where there was no UKIP candidate. Such a move would certainly give Labour kittens, and may even force Milliband and Clegg to look at something similar. But a pact, however mutually desirable, will not happen.
The first problem is one of logistics. Which seats would be claimed by which party? Presumably the Tories would want a free hand in their target seats, like Bolton West which they lost by a slither in 2010. But it’s just that kind of traditional Labour area where UKIP tend to do well, as evidenced by their strong polling in Heywood and a council by-election in South Shields on Thursday. And there’s no chance the Tories will offer up their own safe seats in the Shires for UKIP in return. You’d also have the issue of numbers. Would the pact be country wide? And if not, exactly how many open goals would the Tories offer UKIP? It would need to be enough to tempt them, but not so many as to make a Conservative government beholden to UKIP to get legislation through.
The second hurdle is personalities. Despite diplomatic words, it’s no secret that the leadership of both parties despise one another. Top Tories see UKIP as dangerous demagogues; populist, unsophisticated amateurs. They’re loose canons and would be a nightmare to work with.
For their part, UKIP’s top brass look at the Tory leadership and see spineless careerists with no real world experience; privileged childhoods followed by humanities courses at university, then jobs party functionaries before being parachuted into safe seats. The Downing Street Rose Garden love-in between Cameron and Clegg in 2010 may seem a distant memory now, but it’s another planet compared to what would be a poisonous Cameron-Farage partnership.
One then has to consider the respective brands of each party, for both sides would suffer significant PR penalties by entering into a pact. For the Tories, a five year detoxification effort would be whipped out at a stroke. Millions of pounds and thousands of man hours spent convincing punters that the Tories were compassionate, eco-friendly and ‘progressive’ would be fatally undermined by jumping into bed with the unreconstructed Thatcherite Right.
Equally, UKIP have built a brand on being the anti-politics party. UKIP can’t claim that the other parties are ‘all the same’ only to leap at an alliance for political expediency. They need only look at the damage that thinking has done the Lib Dems. A pact would be especially hard for UKIP who now see traditional labour supporters as thier target constituancy. A pact with the hated Toried would be a hammer blow to that ambition.
Fourth, and linked to the previous point, although both parties are lumped together as being on the right, there are significant differences in policies. Immigration caps, defence spending, international aid, grammar schools, taxation, nuclear energy and Europe are all key areas for both parties, and there’s not even a hint of overlap. This would matter hugely if the Conservatives led a minority government dependent on a clutch of UKIP MPs for support.
The final sticking point is the most nebulous but is probably the most salient: pride.
The Conservatives would have to swallow an awful lot of pride to entertain the idea of a pact. The ‘natural party of government’ and the most successful political party in European parliamentary history would in essence be admitting that they can no longer win a majority under their own steam. It’s difficult to overstate the emotional significance of that admission.
Most would convince themselves that it was a temporary necessity, and that the natural balance would one day be restored. Some would even hope that this was the start of a reunifying of the Centre Right, and that UKIP would soon merge with the Tories. But and a good number would seriously consider leaving rather than be part of a defeated shell of a party. Many in UKIP too would balk at the idea of working with a party that many members had left in disgust.
May 2015 is still some way off. A YouGov poll this week put the Tories slimly ahead. The economy is improving albeit unevenly, and UKIP’s libertarians and social conservatives could still tear each other apart, or UKIP could lurch even more to the economic Left. But with Clacton a done deal and Heywood still an outside possibility, Cameron and his team are going to have to start asking some serious questions, and maybe, just maybe, start putting out feelers.