The next general election will not be concentrated in the counties, but it will decide the government. For this reason, voters will return to the two major parties, the Conservatives and Labour, one of which must lead in forming an administration, if not win outright. Turnout will rise, UKIP's share of the vote will fall, and the best course that David Cameron can take, in the meanwhile, is to hold his nerve, build on his recent conference speeches, and promote a strong, mainstream, sensible programme, for government and for the future. In short, no single, silver bullet will slay the Farage werewolf.
Such a programme would be a conservatism for Bolton West, as I've put it: reducing net immigration, tackling welfare dependency, holding fuel and electricity bills down, showing leadership at home by bringing the deficit down further, boosting job security and helping to keep mortgage rates low. All this is the conventional wisdom, and it's true as far as it goes. I started to look at UKIP and what drives its vote relatively early, and noted that EU policy is not the main factor: immigration and crime are bigger factors. Above all, UKIP's support is driven not so much by ideas as by anger – by the urge to put two fingers up to the entire political class.
If for this reason alone, the Conservative-UKIP pact isn't a flier. (Nirj Deva has come out for it this morning.) Never mind for a moment the possible effect on the 50% plus of voters who supported Labour and the Liberal Democrats in 2010 – plus some of those who voted Tory – of fixating about a party that won 3% last time round, and hovers at around 10% or so in the polls. Never mind signalling to Conservative activists that UKIP is a party one can campaign for, and that they can therefore transfer their backing to it. And never mind the obvious question: why should a party of government help build up a tiny rival by handing it seats in the Commons?
No, the biggest stumblng-block of all to a pact is that while political parties can shepherd MPs into the right lobby, they can't herd voters into voting booths – and whip them to vote as they please. UKIP is drawing its vote from all over the place (as the South Shields result confirms), and no Cameron-Farage pact could persuade angry anti-establishment voters to line up behind their blue local candidate. The idea is unworkable as well as undesirable. But the conventional wisdom is only right up to a point. UKIP won 3% of the vote in 2010. It will be severely squeezed in 2010, but it won't go that low. Farage is here to stay until 2015 – perhaps for much longer.
The UKIP leader is sending a consistent message to Tory MPs and the grassroots: get rid of Cameron, and I'll treat with you. His strategic aim is to break the Conservative Party up, and rebuild it on his terms. By contrast, the message that the Tory leadership has sent to UKIP and its voters has been fuddled and muddled. Ken Clarke insults its activists and, far worse, its voters. Boris Johnson woos them. David Cameron, having labelled the former "fruitcakes, nutters and closet racists", first stuck to the jibe, then took refuge in trying to ignore UKIP altogether, and has finally climbed down. His retreat is an admission of eight years of strategic failure.
The modernising plan which he championed in 2005 was a mirror image of the Blair plan of 1994: reach out the centre – and presume that your right has nowhere else to go. The A-list, the airport runway delay, the risible triangulation in opposition on nuclear power, the carbon price floor, the long prevarication before the EU referendum announcement, the non-appearance of marriage tax breaks, the botched attempt to abolish the '22, the Number Ten Daveocracy, the same sex-marriage debacle – all these swelled UKIP's vote yesterday, and have detracted from the Government's good work on schools, welfare, pensions, immigration control and deficit reduction.
This is scarcely the first time that Tim Montgomerie or I have made this case on this site. David Davis launches a sabre-toothed assault on Cameron this morning, executed to the battle cry of "No More Etonians". But the answer to the Prime Minister's woes isn't a lurch to the right, left, or anywhere else: it's to continue making that aspirational appeal to the midlands and northern marginals which he communicated effectively at last year's party conference, and which had a weak opposition on the run over welfare during the run-up to Margaret Thatcher's funeral. This pitch to voters has come rather late in the day. But better late than never.
I doubt if it will move many of yesterday's UKIP voters, in the short-term at least. Some have never voted Conservative and never would – though Lord Ashcroft's polling confirms that the higher UKIP's support rises, the more it takes from former Tory voters. UKIP activists are a different matter. In essence, they are, overwhelmingly, Conservatives, and many of them are former party activists. And the UKIP programme for which they campaign is in large part a Conservative one, too. Very simply, UKIP is a party of the right, and Mr Cameron ought to be crafting a tent big enough to contain voters from both the right and centre.
This is what winning Conservatives have always done, at home (Thatcher, Macmillan, Salisbury) and abroad (George W Bush, Howard, Harper). It should be admitted at once that the Prime Minister is in a very bad place from which to begin repairing the activist split on the right. But there are two modest ways in which he can start to do so. Neither need involve him personally, which is doubtless just as well. The first is obvious. As Harry Phibbs tweeted yesterday, there are potential Conservative/UKIP coalitions in Lincolnshire, Gloucestershire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and East Sussex after yesterday's elections.
It's up to Tory councillors in those places and elsewhere to decide what to do. It follows that Downing Street and CCHQ should simply let events take their course: if Tory councillors want to team up with UKIP, as they do with other parties elsewhere, so be it. The second way is more speculative. There is a concept, in the jargon of community cohesion policy, of "safe spaces" – in other words, venues and forums in which disaffected young Muslims can feel secure in admitting to each other how much they distrust the establishment foreign policy, hate Tony Blair, want to see Britain transformed, and so on.
The divided right needs a healing equivalent – a "safe space" in which it can come together and discuss how much it distrusts the establishment foreign policy, hates Tony Blair, wants to see Britain transformed, etc. Just as Keith Joseph and Mrs Thatcher set up the Centre for Policy Studies, someone, somewhere, should set something up – though it would be more of a drink tank than a think tank. Conservative MPs might be involved, though the initiative should ideally be bottom-up. I appreciate that there will be few UKIP takers at present. But an EU referendum or a Tory spell in opposition might change the mood. From little acorns, mighty oaks grow.