By Roger Helmer MEP. Follow Roger on Twitter.
There is a rift in the Conservative Party. A fissure. A gully. A chasm. A canyon. A gap so wide it potentially represents an existential threat to the Party, and perhaps justifies radical action.
I speak of course about the gap between the leader and the led, between CCHQ and the grassroots. I believe I’m in touch with grassroots opinion. Three times over the years I’ve been selected as an MEP by Party members in the East Midlands, who largely agree with me about Europe, and more recently about energy and climate change. An overwhelming majority want a more arms-length relationship with Brussels, while many, like me, believe we’d be Better Off Out entirely.
I have argued for years that despite appearances, the Party is fundamentally eurosceptic. That we sceptics are better off staying in it and fighting our corner from within. That eventually we’d get a leader who would get a grip on the issue. I had high hopes of Hague (who now seems to have gone native), and then of IDS (who is doing great things on welfare but is no longer a standard-bearer on Europe). Then along came Cameron, whom I supported in the Leadership election, in part because he guaranteed to take Tory MEPs out of the federalist EPP. He delivered on that promise, albeit belatedly.
But he broke his “Cast-Iron Guarantee” on an EU referendum. His administration has been handing powers willy-nilly to Brussels. We’ve had the Veto-That-Never-Was – and seemingly he’s failed to learn the lesson from that surge in the polls that greeted the news. And he’s sat across a table from me and told me face-to-face that he doesn’t want an EU referendum “because he believes that the UK is better off in the EU”. That proposition is wrong twice over. First, he shouldn’t deny the British people a referendum on a major constitutional issue because he fears he’ll get a result he doesn’t like. And second, of course, the costs of membership hugely exceed any potential benefits, and we’d be Better Off Out.
Conservative Party members in the region have long been bewildered and frustrated by the dissonance between the party and the leadership, but felt there was little they could do about it. But recently, I’m hearing on the ground of formerly loyal members giving up in despair, leaving the Party and going to the United Kingdom Independence Party. This is perhaps reflected in UKIP’s opinion poll ratings, now in high single figures, an exceptional level outside the euro-election season.
And it’s not just Europe. Energy (and wind farms) have become a big issue, and the Coalition’s policies are causing huge anger in the shires. It’s good that Chris Huhne has gone from DECC, that 101 MPs have demanded a cut in on-shore wind subsidies, that the Treasury is reportedly concerned about green subsidies. But the EU’s renewables targets, and the infamous Climate Change Act, are still on the Statute Book, and despoiling our countryside while they undermine our economy and drive families into fuel poverty.
Peter Oborne has described UKIP as “The Conservative Party in exile”, and it’s true that on Europe and on energy, their stance resonates with instinctive conservatives. And not just the EU and energy. Their positions on defence, immigration, “human rights”, HS2, local planning and a range of other issues appeal to conservatives outside the M25. UKIP will do well in the 2014 euro-elections. There are many Conservatives, including party officials and elected members, who would always vote Conservative in General Elections, but are perfectly happy to vote UKIP in the euros. I remember two Conservative councillors who openly admitted to me that they’d voted UKIP. I asked if I weren’t eurosceptic enough for them. “Oh yes, Roger, you’re all right” they replied, “but we’re sending a message to Central Office”. It seems that the message hasn’t got through yet.
We still have time to put things right. As I believe Dan Hannan and Douglas Carswell have argued, if the Conservative Party goes into the next General Election with a firm commitment to an EU referendum, Cameron can shoot UKIP’s fox. But it will be a tough job to convince the electorate of our sincerity, after the long trail of broken promises from all major parties on referenda. To persuade voters, we may need legislation ahead of the election. In any case I doubt this will happen – Cameron, as noted above, has set his face against an in/out referendum.
As long as Cameron continues to consider the prejudices of Guardian readers ahead of the convictions of his party members, I fear the haemorrhage will continue.