John Stevens is a former Conservative Member of European Parliament who stood at the last general election as an independent candidate.
Ian Birrell’s proposal for a new “Metropolitan Party”, as a reaction to UKIP’s rise, has received much attention, but little sympathy, from Conservatives. Partly, I think this is because it is perceived as essentially a plea to rebrand the Liberal Democrats, so as to ensure their survival for a future coalition, in the same vein as Nick Boles’ earlier idea of a “National Liberal Party.” But principally, it is due to it being really a call for a “London Party”, that would closely identify conservatism with the success of the capital and the values which sustain this.
However, most Conservatives, as they become increasingly concerned by UKIP, understand that the Party’s recent vigorous embrace of liberalism, both social and economic, has contributed to the loss of support to Nigel Farage’s insurgency, and that “London” and the “Metropolitan Elite” have become slogans that inspire the ire of the “Peoples Army.” Conservatism has long been a complex balancing act between “Court” and “Country”. The measure of the UKIP threat is precisely its evident capacity to render that balancing act impossible.
But there is another novel combination that is struggling to emerge within the Conservative tradition: what I would call the “New Unionist Party.” This started as a specific group within British Unionism, in reaction to the rise of the SNP, and to the Prime Minister’s policy with regard to Scotland. It includes those who argued for a more distinct, CSU-to-CDU style relationship between the Scottish Conservatives and the rest of the Party, and for a “Devomax” option to be placed on the referendum ballot paper.
It has been dismayed by the Prime Minister’s snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory by his panic-induced last minute vow to give Scotland full home rule, with its weighty implications for Wales and England. Above all, it sees his subsequent casual opening up of the prospect of an English Parliament and further piecemeal regional and metropolitan devolution – with its weighty implications for London and for the “away counties” in the North and West – as being prompted by UKIP’s narrow nationalism, rather than any coherent constitutional vision. Far from having resolved it for a generation, the issue of the integrity of the United Kingdom seems now to be more open than ever.
These British Unionists are now being joined, if they were not already of the same mind, by the European Unionists, the supporters of Britain’s membership of the EU. Partly, this is because of the common anti-establishment, anti-main-Westminster-party-consensus quality of both the SNP and the UKIP challenges. Principally, however, it is because it is rapidly becoming evident that it will be extremely difficult to preserve the union with the Scots if the English tried to take them out of the EU.
The European Unionists have long regarded the Prime Minister as their best protection against the progressive UKIP-isation of conservatism. They have gone along with the formulation and promises of his Bloomberg speech, because they believed, like him, that it would halt UKIP’s rise. However it did not halt UKIP’s rise, and they have come to see that his putting renegotiation on the table has weakened the case of those who find nothing substantially wrong with our current relationship with the EU, and greatly concerned those who know that only an eventual deepening of our commitment to the Union, including, above all, joining the euro, will normalise and secure our membership.
They had trusted that he would ensure he would be able to hold his promised European referendum recommending a vote to stay in. Now they see him adopting negotiating positions, notably on the fundamental principle of the free movement of people in the Single Market, which cannot conceivably be met by our partners, and hinting at his readiness to form a post-election coalition with UKIP which must logically indicate his readiness to recommend a vote to leave.
Ian Birrell’s entertaining speculation expressed the alarm of a minority, albeit influential, strand of Conservative thinking. The alarm of the Unionists seems likely to prove much more mainstream and thus more powerful.