I have recently joined longer-standing advocates of a Conservative-UKIP pact, such as Daniel Hannan and Toby Young. Some folk will think this an obviously attractive idea; others will think it obviously unattractive. But for some the question might turn upon the details. Here, then, I try to unpack some.
As a preamble, though, it is worth reflecting upon what the Conservatives and UKIP might each expect to get out of such a pact. Some folk say we don't need any pact - we should simply announce a referendum and expect UKIP to fold as a consequence. Others say we should just declare we endorse UKIP's agenda and ask UKIP, in exchange, to endorse our candidates. I don't think either of those is really a goer.
It really isn't true that the Conservatives endorse most of UKIP's agenda. The modern UKIP is a fully-fledged party with a range of policies, most of which Conservatives don't agree with. Even on Europe, I don't recommend that the Conservative Party says its position is to withdraw – if that were really our position, why would we need a referendum? We'd simply say we'd withdraw!
It's obviously true that UKIP's motive force, its rationale for existence, is withdrawal from the EU. But, absent a pact, mightn't UKIP's leaders say they'd believe the Conservatives would have a referendum when they saw it? And absent UKIP leadership endorsement, UKIP voters might stick with the party that says it will campaign to withdraw in a referendum, rather than just the party that says it would hold one. There might be every prospect, in fact, that absent a pact a promise to hold a referendum could lead to a short-term rise in UKIP votes at the Conservatives' expense! Furthermore, if the Conservatives say they'll hold a referendum then Labour and the Lib Dems will follow (as before the 1997 General Election), so it wouldn't be obvious that UKIP voters would support the Conservatives anyway.
What Conservatives might get from a pact could be 3%-5% of additional support in key marginal constituencies. UKIP will certainly poll far in excess of that at the next European election, and at the General Election might reasonably expect 8%-10% of the public to support it, though its actual vote may be down from that because (unlike in European elections) such votes will be perceived as "wasted" since UKIP wouldn't win any MPs. But that doesn't mean there wouldn't be 8%-10% of votes out there. Even with UKIP leadership endorsement, Conservative candidates could not reasonably expect to get all that 8%-10%. But 3%-5% could very much be on the cards.
Some commenters talk of "only 3%". But in 2010, 3% would have been the difference between an overall majority and a hung Parliament. With an extra 5% we'd have had a solid working majority. Getting an extra 3%-5% in key marginal constituencies would definitely be worth it from the Conservative perspective.
What would UKIP get out of a deal? Two things. First, if the Conservatives said the EU referendum (which is coming anyway) will contain an "Out" option, then Labour will match that, much as Blair and Major matched each other over the euro referendum in the 1990s. So by entering into the pact, UKIP advances the central component of its reason for being.
Second, the Conservatives would need to guarantee UKIP UK Parliamentary representation. They'd want an MP, presumably Farage himself, if only to give permanent voice to their message and keep the other parties to their referendum promises. With an MP, UKIP's credibility at later General Elections would also rise.
So, coming to the nub, here's the deal:
- Conservatives put in a manifesto promise to enact a referendum that includes an option on the ballot of leaving the EU.
- Conservatives withdraw their candidate and support the UKIP candidate in at least one seat where doing so would make it near-certain that the UKIP candidate would win. (This would presumably be a current safe Conservative seat.)
- Conservatives withdraw their candidates and support the UKIP candidate in three other seats where doing so would create a strong chance that the UKIP candidate would win. (These would presumably be currently marginal seats, perhaps two currently held by MPs from other parties with Conservatives in a close second, and a significant UKIP vote and one currently held by a Conservative MP, with a significant UKIP vote.)
- UKIP withdraw their candidates from all other key marginals where the Conservatives are competitors and all current Conservative seats, and endorse the Conservative candidates.
- The Conservatives withdraw from 10 further Labour or Lib Dem seats in which they are well behind, leaving UKIP candidates a clear run.
Such a deal would give UKIP parliamentary representation and their long-hoped-for referendum including an Out option, and Conservatives a significantly enhanced chance to win in marginal constituencies. We should not need to endorse each others' policies any further. This is purely a pre-election pact, and would retain the separate identities of the parties. For example, there should be no question of Conservatives offering Cabinet positions to UKIP MPs, and after the election, UKIP MPs could be free to vote in Parliament as they saw fit.