The Editor notes that just 19% of Conservative members think Cameron can win an overall majority, most think they are not respected by the party, and nearly half have ceased to engage in any party activity. That may seem unsurprising when the Conservatives have regularly been polling below or just above 30% in recent months. The latest ElectoralCalculus analysis predicts Conservatives on 227 seats (29.88% of the vote) at the next General Election, a 77% probability of a Labour majority, and a Labour majority of 74. When Cameron was elected, the Conservatives had been at around 32-34% in the opinion polls virtually continuously since 1992. He was supposed to break us out of that range. It appeared recently that he had finally managed – we started polling consistently well below the bottom end.
Yet the common wisdom amongst political commentators is that, despite these polls, when it comes to an actual General Election the Conservatives will do much better, and Labour rather worse, than current polls indicate. One reason for this is the general myth of the "mid-term blues", which I have attempted to debunk before - for the past 50 years in Britain, parties that were unpopular mid-term lost the next election, except for in the Thatcher period. But some commentators go further, such as Dan Hodges, who proclaims that "The next general election is now David Cameron's to lose". Hodges doesn't simply have a general view view about mid-term blues reversion. He has a very specific formula – Hodges Poll Rule: "Drop Ukip to 6%, give rest to Tories. Take LD up to 15%, take from Lab. That's the real poll result."
So, for example, the latest YouGov poll, last weekend for the Sunday Times, had Conservatives 33%, Labour 39%, Lib Dems 11%, UKIP 12%. Applying Hodges Poll Rule that converts to: Conservatives 39%, Labour 35%, Lib Dems 15%, UKIP 6% – which on a uniform swing would make the Conservatives the largest party on 305 seats.
The key assumption of Hodges and other commentators is that, come a General Election, most of Ukip's current poll support will switch to the Conservatives. I'm far from convinced, for a number of reasons. First, I see a key element of Ukip support as being a right-wing alternative to discouraged Labour voters in safe Labour seats. Left-wingers that didn't like Blair gave up voting. Right-wingers are less likely not to vote, but instead vote Ukip, achieving much the same result. The point of this is that, if Ukip didn't exist, I suspect that lots of its voters wouldn't be Conservative voters – they simply wouldn't vote at all or would vote for independents. And even if they don't vote Ukip come General Election day, that may well be because they just stay home.
Second, I think Ukip may be entering a phase in which it starts to pick up more left-wing support. Many continental nationalist movements pick up votes on both the discouraged right and the alienated left. Why shouldn't Ukip? It could be that, as an insightful Ukip-supporting contributor suggested at the recent Bow Group debate on Ukip-Conservative relations put it, right-wing support has just been the "low-hanging fruit", and that the future growth of Ukip support will come much more from the Left.
Third, I think many Westminster commentators assume that Ukip support is some form of protest by a mix of anti-Cameroons and anti-politics types - a kind of "politically correct BNP-in-suits". And they assume that protest is a mid-term luxury that will disappear when a real decision is to be made at a General Election. But that's far from obvious to me. I think it's much more likely that Ukip will prove to be an "SDP of the Right" – in at least the sense that its agenda (in its case on the EU and immigration) is adopted by the main two parties to such an extent that it loses its own raison d'etre. But, like the SDP, it could prove electorally significant for a couple of General Elections until the rest capitulate totally. I don't even think it is totally out of the question that Ukip could be the "Protectionists of the 21st Century". It is common to draw parallels between Conservative splits over Europe and the splits over the Corn Laws in the 19th century. What most folk forget, though, is that the Conservative Party died, then. The Peelites were the official Conservative Party – the Cameroons of their day, if you like - and under Gladstone they formed the Liberals. The "Protectionists" under Lord Derby and Disraeli were the schismatics – the Ukippers. It was the Protectionists that became the new voice of the right after the official Conservative Party died. We cannot just assume that Ukip will eventually "go away", unless it does so after eating us.
Many Conservatives are alive to the medium-term Ukip threat. Douglas Carswell, Daniel Hannan, and Toby Young are all signed-up advocates of a "Unite the Right" concept. At the Bow Group's Ukip-Conservative relations debate, we heard Carswell and Young putting forward their ideas. The problem I had with their schemes, though, was that they seemed little more than an appeal for Ukip to wind itself up and join us. It cannot work (indeed, it would be daft) to seek some form of pact with Ukip that meant we eliminated the distinction between ourselves and Ukip. That could not work both because there would be nothing in it for Ukip – why should it pursue its own immolation? – and because the Editor is right to fear that too close a pact would destroy the distinction between Ukip and Conservatives in the minds of voters. A further reason for rejecting Carswell's approach is that he believes the old established traditions of parties are obsolete and that the future lies in highly "retail" parties catering to the niche needs of citizen-consumers in a digital age. I believe that that would be a recipe for the death of two-party politics in general and the Conservative Party in particular, heralding the death of the entire British oligarchic governmental tradition, which the Conservative Party mainly exists to defend. That would be a catastophe for human civilisation in general, not simply for Britain. So suffice it to say, I'm agin it.
But I don't agree with either the Editor nor with Carswell and Young is in thinking that the right near-term goal of a pact with Ukip is the extinction of Ukip, nor its becoming an onging sister party to the Conservatives. Political pacts are usually arrangements of convenience, delivering short-term mutual advantage. We should not hope to make Ukip our sister, nor to hope to persuade it to wind itself up. If seek any kind of pact, it should have narrow and near-immediate purposes, providing advantage to both parties.
In the case of the form of pact I have proposed, the narrow near-term advantages that could be delivered to Ukip would be two-fold: representation at Westminster; and pressure on Labour to agree to a two-question in-out referendum. The narrow near-term advantages that could be delivered to the Conservatives would be: 2-3% of extra vote in 20-30 marginal seats. Immediately after a General Election, the pact would be at an end, and we would go our separate ways.
David Cameron has said there can be no pact with Ukip. Nigel Farage has said there can be no pact with David Cameron. Well, politicians change their minds or politicians change – that's the game. If the Conservatives look like getting 305 seats at the next General Election but could get an extra 20-30 seats by forming a short-term narrow pact with Ukip, and if Ukip believe they can force Miliband to promise an in-out referendum by forming a short-term narrow pact with the Conservatives, we should not allow personality issues to prevent us from doing the deal.