Christopher Howarth is a senior Political Analyst at the think tank Open Europe. Prior to Open Europe he worked as a Conservative Foreign Affairs Adviser and senior researcher to a Shadow Europe Minister. Follow Open Europe on Twitter.
UKIP have done well in the local elections, securing almost 13% of the vote, in the places where they stood, and caused real problems for the Conservative Party. It might be tempting for the Conservative leadership to retreat into Downing Street, curl up in their well-beingness zone and ignore this local squall, or still worse, insult those former Conservatives who decided to vote UKIP. This would be a serious mistake as events are conspiring to create a perfect UKIP storm going into the 2014 Euro elections just before the (now fixed) 2015 general election.
Firstly, before I explain further, I do not believe that the Coalition’s actions on Europe are the whole, or even a major explanation of UKIP’s good showing. Not all UKIP voters are former Conservatives and even if they were, not all would return – when is a protest no longer a protest? Europe is not the only issue that motivates people to vote UKIP. Perceptions that the Conservative Party does not share voter’s concerns on immigration, law and order, has a Maoist fascination for unwanted and damaging constitutional change (such as House of Lords reform), as well as an air (hopefully temporary) of incompetence all play their part. However Europe remains an issue and cannot be ignored. This is why:
There will be a European election in 2014. Last time (in 2009) UKIP came second with 16.5% of the vote, in 2014 they could do a lot better providing momentum going into the general election. In 2009 the Conservatives had a coherent European narrative (based on a Lisbon referendum) and although they chose to focus on domestic issues it was in line with majoritarian British thinking. In 2014, the Conservatives are unlikely to have a clear narrative. In 2014, the UK will have to decide whether to opt in to EU jurisdiction over 130 EU police and Justice measures, including the EU arrest warrant, or leave them completely with the Liberal Democrats potentially fighting hard to stay in.
In 2014 we will see a major House of Commons Parliamentary vote on ratifying the EU’s seven year budgetary framework, which on past performance could see a rise or a freeze but not a cut. Voting it through would be unpopular when the UK is facing tax hikes as well as some cuts.
In 2014 the EU will implement a provision of the Lisbon Treaty changing the EU’s voting system meaning the UK could be out voted by the Eurozone acting as a caucus, with severe implications for the UK’s financial and social regulation. All manner of unpopular measures could appear in the meantime.
And all this with a General election set in stone for 2015
So what can be done by the Conservatives to retake the initiative?
This is obviously difficult in a Coalition context but there are things that can be done. The Conservatives could set out distinctive policies, based around getting powers back from the EU that would in due course go into their manifesto. The Conservatives could set out a vision for the UK in a flexible Europe, post the eurozone crisis, based on the UK remaining outside the euro – President Klaus of the Czech Republic has recently set out something similar. The UK should say now that they will exercise their block opt-out over EU police and justice matters so it is not left hanging or reduced by 2014. The UK should also set out innovative ideas to shrink and radically reform the EU budget (Open Europe has suggested this on agricultural spending and this on EU structural funds). The UK could also consider unilaterally adopting a minimalist approach when implementing some of the worst aspects of EU regulation obviously aimed at Britain, such as the Agency Workers Directive and aspects of financial regulation.