Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.

Into the Medway valley rode David Cameron
Thornberry to the left of him
Farage to the right of him
Into the Medway valley rode David Cameron

It was not magnifique and was certainly not, as Talleyrand would say, la guerre.

The inability to defend against populists appears spread wide. In Spain, the Podemos Party led by Pablo (nothing to do with Enrique) Iglesias has established itself as a force. Germany’s openly pro-GDR and self-explanatory Left Party has entered regional government for the first time (the anti-single currency Alternatif are not so much populists as extremists of the economics profession). France’s National Front (financed by Russia, should they be renamed the Fronte Orientale?) rides high. Greece has its Syriza and Golden Dawn. Scotland its fishy first couple. In Ireland, Sinn Fein (anti immigrant slogan: Brits Out!) top opinion polls.

As was once said of the bomber, it appears that populist will always get through.

The standard, ineffective, defence is to “listen”. The electorate are held to be furious and demand change from the political class whom they believe are unprincipled careerists. Listening, however, is just code for abandoning your beliefs and following opinion polls wherever they might lead. No better confirmation that the establishment are unprincipled careerists could be found than the Tory leaflet attacking Mark Reckless for being an investment banker who went to Oxford. This defies credibility. If we aren’t that party of investment bankers who’ve been to Oxford then who on earth is left for us to stand for?

Confronted with this headlong retreat, the populist tactic is to move further to the extremes. Ed Miiband’s point-and-tax economics has opened space for the Green Party’s unveiled hostility to economic progress to be taken seriously by educated leftists who should know better. Voters in Rochester elected a man who, though unconvincingly slapped down by his leader, nevertheless saw nothing wrong with deporting hundreds of thousands of legal European immigrants.

More retreats look likely to be announced in the imminent prime ministerial speech on immigration. Yet the main problem with a strategy of retreat isn’t that it gives space for the extremism of Reckless, but that it won’t help the people at whom it is directed. Restricting EU immigration will do little for the voters of Clacton or Rochester. Because, like other people who hope that protectionism will improve their prospects, their concerns are not based on facts, no actual change will make things better, any more than imposing tariffs on foreign cars would promote economic growth.

Political strategists may scoff at this high mindedness. They discern in their polling major worries about immigration, and judge that we need to do something about it. The difficulty however is that there is little that can be done that will make much difference, or which can be done without major side effects, which themselves deserve independent and serious consideration. Restricting EU migration is impossible without leaving the EU (there is no special deal available) and even if a British exit that preserved good diplomatic and trading relationships with Europe could be secured, something made rather less likely by using immigration as the catalyst for Brexit, cutting immigration would expose businesses to an immediate shortage of highly motivated workers. Cherry picking the “immigrants we need” is not a solution. A central planner’s fantasy, the last time it was tried civil servants opted to recruit men for London’s docks and Bradford’s textile mills.

Nor is this just a right wing issue. The bidding war the parties are conducting over who will divert yet more taxpayers’ money to the NHS while the rest of the public budget is subjected to further cuts is the left wing version of this strategic error.

The real question is not whether people care about immigration or the health service, but what they think about the measures needed to deal with it. Do the solutions put forward make sense? Can they be afforded? Are the intermediate steps required worthwhile? Do the people who would be in charge look like they could make a decent fist of it?

The important question isn’t, “Who do you want to have a drink with?”, it’s, “Who do you want to fix your car?”

There is no point competing with the populists for popularity: they need to be fought asymmetrically. That is how Italy’s Matteo Renzi secured decisive victories in European and regional elections, vanquishing Beppe Grillo and Silvio Berlusconi, and Klaus Iohannis just won in Romania. It even explains why the party of the low-key, competent Arseniy Yatsenyuk did so well in Ukraine. People know, and have often learnt from bitter experience, of the disaster and hardship that apparently attractive populist governments bring. They understand the importance of competence, recognise that government is difficult, and want to vote for people they think up to the job. The British people are, surely, no less aware of this than Italians, Romanians, or Ukrainians.

Politicians who are willing to accept that the voters are more responsible and intelligent than the populists give them credit for can defeat insurgency with which they are threatened. But they first need to remember to listen a little less, and govern a little more.