One of the signature tunes of our columnist Stephen Tall, the editor of LibDem Voice, is that Nick Clegg isn’t preoccupied by what three-quarters of voters think. He is focused on roughly a quarter of them (the Liberal Democrats gained 23 per cent at the last election). Were the Deputy Prime Minister’s party to repeat that result next year, another hung Parliament would be certain – since neither the Conservatives nor Labour would win enough of the remaining 75 per cent to gain a majority. Clegg would then be in pole position to screw a coalition out of David Cameron or Ed Miliband, and once again take up the chauffeur-and-red-box life of office. Jobs for the boys; ministerial salaries; seats round the table; second term of government – mission accomplished.
UKIP is unlikely to be part of any Coalition Government, since it probably won’t win any Commons seats at all, but Nigel Farage’s position is a strange mirror image of Clegg’s. Just as Clegg isn’t bothered by what three-quarters of voters think, so Farage isn’t worried by what nine in ten of them think. All UKIP has to do in little more than a year’s time to achieve the latter’s strategic purpose is to grab ten per cent of the vote. Since UKIP is taking more votes from the Conservatives than Labour – six times as many, as Mike Smithson pointed out to his readers earlier this month, according to one recent estimate – this would probably do enough to put Miliband into Downing Street.
Farage would then be poised to wrench a realignment of the right out of the demoralised Tories, given the propensity of the party to swing between complacency and panic. He would thus have achieved his own strategic aim, which includes an end to his own party – since he is smart enough to grasp that it has no future as a perpetual party of opposition (its likely destiny under first-past-the-post). Mission accomplished!
All this helps to put the recent rows over Farage’s Euro-allowances and UKIP’s election posters into context. What matters for the party is what that ten per cent of voters think. And since these tend to be anti-immigration, anti-establishment voters, they will like the posters and be indifferent to the Times’s allowances reports, which a few of them will see as evidence that the paper is a tool of the EUSSR/the LibLabCon/the ZanuLab/fill in here. By the same token, Nick Robinson’s aggressive questioning of Farage was more likely to help the latter than otherwise. Nor does what the UKIP leader’s staff get up to matter a jot. And he has another string to his bow.
His party may be taking more votes from the Conservatives than Labour, but it is none the less a threat to the latter. How much so is a matter of dispute, but Farage has an interest in turning up the heat on Miliband, too. This is not simply because he wants every vote he can get. The more UKIP can spook Labour, the more pressure there is on Miliband to concede an In/Out referendum. Were he to do so, CCHQ’s “only-the-Conservatives-will-give-you-a-referendum” argument would be blown to smithereens. Admittedly, it is not a big gainer of votes for the party. But it has its place in the Tory armoury, and its loss would be a blow.
Yesterday, UKIP released its Euro-elections broadcast. Today, Clegg launches his party’s Euro-elections campaign. The recent debate between them was a reminder that the two men are not so much opponents as partners, united in their goal of tearing slices off Cameron’s vote. Success for Clegg would boost Farage’s strategy, since it would boost Miliband’s chances of making it to Number 10. Success for Farage would boost Clegg’s strategy, since the more votes UKIP takes off the Conservatives, the more likely the LibDems are to hold yellow/blue marginals. I would call this alliance a Molotov-Ribbentrop pact were that title not already taken.