More and more often I’m asked if I will defect to UKIP. I can understand why. I’m no admirer of David Cameron’s zig-zagging leadership of the Conservative Party. I support leaving the EU. I resent the way George Osborne span last week’s extra £850 million payment to the Brussels bureaucracy as some sort of victory. I share UKIP’s opposition to Britain’s futile but expensive climate change policies. I’ve also tried to understand the motivations of UKIP’s voters rather than shout them down as racists.
All of my experience suggests that the vast majority of Kippers are patriotic, decent Britons who worry about the direction of the country and are often victims of very tough economic circumstances. I admire many of UKIP’s leading lights, notably Douglas Carswell, Patrick O’Flynn and Steven Woolfe. I feel philosophically and temperamentally closer to them than some prominent members of my own party – Matthew Parris or Ken Clarke, for example. But I’m not going to leave the Conservative Party.
Although there’s more in UKIP that I like than I dislike (it’s largely a party of the centre right after all) I want to fight for the Conservatives to again become Britain’s dominant party – rooted in the centre right, a broad church and committed to a one nation politics. I may feel closer to Douglas Carswell than Matthew Parris; to Patrick O’Flynn rather than to Ken Clarke but the bigger truth is that I’m much closer to Dan Hannan than to Nigel Farage, to Owen Paterson rather than Diane James or to Iain Duncan Smith than to Mark Reckless.
Here are ten quick reasons why I won’t be joining UKIP:
- UKIP is the EU’s best hope of avoiding a referendum. I agree with what Douglas Carswell once believed: “Only the Conservatives will guarantee and deliver an In /Out referendum. It will only happen if Cameron is Prime Minister”. If you vote Conservative you maximise your chance of David Cameron and pro-referendum Tory MPs staying in power. If you vote UKIP you might get Ed Miliband – as Nigel Farage now concedes.
- UKIP is not a friend of its poorest voters. UKIP is doing particularly well in more disadvantaged parts of Britain that haven’t done well during the global recession or indeed during the preceding years when less skilled work lost much of its market value. Its tax policies won’t benefit the lowest-paid workers, however. 85 per cent of the benefit of its policy to increase the starting rate of income tax will go to the top half of earners. This is also true of the Tory and LibDem pledge but I thought UKIP was supposed to be different? Moreover UKIP would take the poor backwards on some key fronts. Both Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell have fought hard against Tory housebuilding plans that would reduce the cost of housing to first-time buyers. Many in the Tory Party are too NIMBYist but the problem in UKIP is even more serious – perhaps because its voters are so much older than any of the other parties?
- UKIP is divided. Forget for the moment the historic fallings out. I mean, for example, what UKIP’s founder Alan Sked thinks of Mr Farage. Or what Godfrey Bloom thinks. Or Marta Andreasen. I’m thinking about the future tensions. Mark Wallace has expertly highlighted the looming differences between Douglas Carswell and Nigel Farage. UKIP is in danger of making the People’s Front of Judea look coherent. They have one policy that unites them – leaving the EU. Not much else.
- UKIP is amateurish. If you vote UKIP you could end up with almost anything in the way of policy. At the Eastleigh by-election it was promising lots of increases in spending and lots of tax cuts. Even Ed Balls is better at sums. At its recent Doncaster conference its Treasury spokesman Patrick O’Flynn announced a tax on luxury goods only for it to be disowned by Nigel Farage 48 hours later. Mr Farage has a habit of disowning UKIP policies. He described his own party’s 2010 manifesto as “drivel”. He didn’t admit that to voters at the time. So much for straight-talking.
- UKIP is unfinished. I sat on a panel on the fringe of UKIP’s recent conference. It was remarkable to see two front bench spokespeople – Steven Woolfe and Patrick O’Flynn openly disagree about the desirability of a flat tax. UKIP started as a “non-racist, libertarian party” committed to leave the EU. It hardly talks about leaving the EU anymore. It increasingly focuses on immigration. It opposed gay marriage in order to reinforce its support among older voters. It’s currently more conservative than libertarian but soon may be more left-wing than conservative. In reaching out to Labour voters it has become anti-reformist on the NHS but, in a leftover from its earlier days, it still promises to cut tax for the rich. Contradictions don’t always matter in opposition. The Liberal Democrats who played left in the north and right in the south for twenty years were only found out in government but UKIP is not only an incoherent political force its ambitions to win in Labour as well as Tory backyards is resulting in even more and more incoherence. Join this moving vehicle at your own risk. Its destination is unknown.
- UKIP has no long-term economic plan. Ed Balls has his banker bonus tax. He’s spent it five or ten times, depending on whose list you trust. UKIP isn’t any more honest than the shadow chancellor. UKIP say it’ll pay for everything by leaving the EU or cutting aid to the poorest and hungriest people of the world. This would only pay for, perhaps, a quarter of Britain’s borrowings. UKIP has no plan to rebuild the northern economy, eliminate the deficit or reform welfare. It is not a party of tough choices but this is a time when very tough choices are necessary.
- UKIP is isolationist. I am proud to be part of a country that shoulders its global responsibilities. While I want Britain to leave the EU it’s because I don’t want to be shackled to an out-of-date project that is in serious global decline. Farage says he wants a globalist Britain, too. I’m not so sure. I’m proud of our partnership with America in punishing aggression. Proud of our armed forces. Proud of the humanitarian good that our aid budget does. Nigel Farage’s desire to slash the aid budget, his opposition to action against ISIS and his admiration for Vladimir Putin’s skills may strike a populist note but they’re not the actions of a great Britain. They deserve the Little England tag.
- UKIP is opportunistic. There are many people who oppose gay marriage for principled reasons. I personally support marriage equality but I respect the views of those who disagree. But why did Nigel Farage oppose gay marriage? Because the traditional family is important to him? If it was he would have a developed family policy. As Kathy Gyngell blogs, he hasn’t begun to.
- UKIP is undemocratic. Don’t take my word for it – read Roger Lord’s words. He was deselected as UKIP’s Clacton candidate without any internal procedure. It may have been an electorally understandable decision but it certainly wasn’t democratic. I wouldn’t want to be part of a party where my career or my party’s direction was in the hands of any one person.
- UKIP is pessimistic. Douglas Carswell’s open and optimistic speech after his Clacton victory was a model for what UKIP might yet become but it was not typical of the party. Speech after speech at UKIP’s Doncaster conference was a rant at the modern world. I know. I was there, sitting through it all. The speech by the party’s health spokesperson, Louise Bours, was so shouty I wanted earplugs by the end of it. And, of course, there are reasons for anger. The decline of home ownership, flat wages for millions, social immobility and the demographic changes that are producing such a misshaped state are grounds for concern but it’s all too negative. Even unBritish. There was even something uncivilised about Nigel Farage’s speech against Herman van Rompuy in the European Parliament. “You have the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low grade bank clerk“? I want the can-do optimism of a Reagan or a Boris at the heart of politics. No nation can advance with pessimism in its fuel tank.
A final thought. An eleventh reason. This particularly fractious time to be a Conservative won’t last. I feel – as many Tories do – that there is a cuckoo in the nest at present and he will be gone on either the day after the next election or a year or two afterwards. At some point in the not too distant future the party will have a leader more in tune with the mood of the Conservative voter and with the lower income, aspirational and patriotic voters that Margaret Thatcher and John Major successfully attracted. The unhappy chapter begun in December 2005 will close.
The Conservatives shouldn’t change their leader before the election, whatever happens in next Thursday’s Rochester and Strood by-election. It is not clear that there is any Tory in parliament who’d do a better job for the Conservative Party next May than David Cameron. Particularly because it is unlikely that a leadership election would be a coronation. It would probably be protracted and divisive. The Tories also have strong assets. The economy is growing. Jobs are being created. Crime is down. Welfare and schools are being reformed. Pensioners have been looked after. Only one party can deliver a referendum on Europe. These remain strong underpinnings of a re-election strategy. They’d not be enough against a strong Labour Party but they might be enough against a Labour Party led by Ed Miliband. He seemed to do enough yesterday to save his leadership.
Moreover, David Cameron is not a terrible conservative. He’s a little bit conservative in every respect. A little bit of a fiscal conservative. A little bit of a Eurosceptic. A little bit of a reformer. A little bit of a hawk on foreign policy. But, while such modest conservatism might have suited happier times, these are not happy times. The European Union of which we are already semi-detached members is failing economically and failing badly. Emerging markets, technological change and open borders are combining to depress the wages of the lowest-paid. Demographic change is distorting the budgets of ageing western electorates such that the British state now spends more than half of its budget on health, welfare and pensions. This is a time for boldness rather than for Cameronism.
Although I think he’s been a strategic amateur the Prime Minister is clearly a natural TV performer and super competent at many of the things a prime minister should be competent at – including at representing Britain at international gatherings and in Commons performances. I was very proud of his responses to the Hillsborough and Bloody Sunday reports. The trouble is that these qualities are less important than a common touch, consistency and skilled party management. The gatekeepers of Britain’s political culture put too much emphasis on the silky sophistication of a Cameron and not only don’t value the raw strategic consistency of a Tony Abbott and Stephen Harper or the folksy charm of a Ronald Reagan or John Key. Worse, they actually sneer at such qualities.
But change is coming. David Cameron may be gone within six months. If he wins the next election he’ll probably go by mid-term, perhaps sooner. Real change must then happen because, by its own objectives, Cameronism has failed. Failed to build Tory support in the north, in urban Britain or among ethnic minorities. Three key tasks will await Cameron’s successor, whoever he or she will be:
- They will have to begin proper Tory modernisation. David Cameron was not wrong in 2005 to argue that the Tory Party needed to change. This, after all, is a party that last won a general election outright in 1992. But as polling by YouGov for ConservativeHome has demonstrated, Team Cameron undertook the wrong kind of modernisation. The belief was that the Tories were too right-wing (hence the emphasis on not talking about Europe, immigration and crime). The problem was that the party was too biased towards the already wealthy (a reputation that the party tried to tackle with its commitment to the NHS but only reinforced by, among other things, adopting environmental policies that increased fuel bills and also by denying poorer, bright kids the opportunity of a grammar school education). Even now the Tory leadership does not understand the extent of its problem. George Osborne’s decision at the Birmingham Party Conference to announce a freeze on benefits for the lowest paid without asking any other better-off sections of society to make any sacrifices was politically deaf to the party’s greatest challenge. The next Tory leader will only break into Scotland, northern England, the great cities and amongst ethnic minority populations if it offers the two halves of the great Winston Churchill vision: ladders of opportunity so people of every background can climb high and also, often forgotten by Conservatives, the finest social ambulance service in the world, so that no person ever falls too far.
- They will have to reknit the centre right, Eurosceptic coalition. It’s not yet clear how easy or hard that will be. With six or more MPs in parliament and a large number of second-placed results UKIP might soon be a force to be reckoned with. But if UKIP falls short and if Nigel Farage walks away from his party’s leadership all the internal inconsistencies within UKIP might bubble over. However hard it is some sort of post-election reconciliation will be necessary. That reconciliation might be with UKIP voters rather than with its hierarchy but reconciliation will be necessary – at least as long as Britain’s first-past-the-post system continues.
- They will have to decentralise the party. We must never get into a position ever again where the Tory Party is run by such a small, very wealthy and not particularly effective clique. There have been members of David Cameron’s circle who have been outstanding. Lord Feldman springs to mind. He has transformed the Conservative Party’s finances. Overall, however, it couldn’t win a majority against Brown, has presided over the biggest ever split on the centre right of British politics and its only hope of winning the next election is the fact that Labour replaced Gordon Brown with someone even less electable. There are divisions across the Right in all parts of the world but the lack of internal democracy has forced Tory divisions into the open and many natural Tories out of the party. The split on the American Right has been contained within the Republican Party by the US system of primary elections. This has meant, on occasions, some very odd candidates have been nominated by the GOP for the Senate in particular. It has been messy but the party has stayed together – and triumphed in last week’s mid-terms. Robust systems of internal democracy might have meant certain policies that I, personally, support – including equal marriage and the 0.7 per cent aid target – might have been blocked. I would have argued for them but party members and MPs deserve to be consulted more often than at a once-in-a-decade leadership election. Every MP in the next parliament should have a job (running the UK equivalents of Battleground Texas, for example (of which more on another occasion)). There should be an elected Tory board and Chairman with the responsibility to think about the long-term health of the Tory Party. The whole party apparatus should not be obsessed with helping the current leader survive beyond the annual electoral cycle. Fundamental change is needed in party organisation if it is to think long-term about rebuilding in the northern cities, changing the profile of party candidates and – the previous theme – remoralising the Tory brand.
UKIP is partly the product of both lousy party management and strategy by the current Tory leadership. Its best members can teach the Conservative Party a few things but it is not the answer to Britain’s key challenges. The Conservatives might just limp over the finishing line at the next election under David Cameron’s leadership but fundamental change is still needed if the party is to win an election and, most importantly, deserve to win it.