By Paul Goodman
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By a Conservative/UKIP pact I mean candidates of the two parties standing down for each other at the next election, perhaps paving the way for joint candidates and a merger (as Nigel Farage, playing Tory Euro-sceptics like an old maestro playing a Stradivarius, has suggested).
Let's look first at the possible upside for the Conservative Party.
- Some Tory voters who say that they will now vote UKIP might return to the Conservatives in the event of a pact, just in time for next year's county council elections and the Euro-elections that follow in 2014.
- Some seats that we might otherwise lose at the next election could be held. Clearly, some UKIP supporters are former Tory voters, and Lord Ashcroft's polling suggests that their number has risen. So a pact might help some Tory MPs to save their seats.
- The trickle of activists – and perhaps, over the next few years, MPs (who knows?) - to UKIP might be halted. Mr Farage's party will be angling for more defections, and some Parliamentary ones too, during the run-up to 2015.
- "The right" could be re-united. UKIP is essentially a party of the right – which is now divided, in a reverse of what happened during the 1980s. David Cameron could do with transforming the chessboard and taking some of UKIP's 5% or so poll share.
- A pact would please the Euro-sceptic wing of the party, which sees itself as having more in common with UKIP than with the Liberal Democrats, and would find Nigel Farage a considerable improvement on Simon Hughes (a view that is hard to resist).
- A pact could thwart Labour, because they would have been beaten to an In/Out referendum by Mr Cameron. Mr Miliband would have little option but lamely to endorse the referendum plan.
Next, the possible downside:
- Some Tory voters who say that they will now vote UKIP might stick with UKIP in the event of a pact, since such an arrangement would signal that David Cameron now sees UKIP as a respectable partner.
- Some seats that we might otherwise hold at the next election could be lost. UKIP won about a million votes at the last election. Labour and the Liberal Democrats won over 15 million. Gaining some votes at one end could mean losing many more at the other.
- The trickle of activists – and perhaps, over the next few years, MPs (who knows?) - to UKIP might actually speed up. Signalling to MPs and activists that UKIP is a partner could have unintended consequences, and big ones at that.
- The right might be re-united, but all UKIP's votes wouldn't be gained. This is because evidence suggests that a significant proportion of its voters are what have been called ANTI-voters. They hate the main parties, and a pact wouldn't change that.
- A pact would displease the Euro-enthusiast wing of the party. It sees itself as having more in common with the Liberal Democrats than with UKIP. There could even be defections to the former.
- A pact could please Labour, because it would be able to paint Mr Cameron as the prisoner both of his own right and of UKIP (whose peculiarities have not yet fallen under the media spotlight, but certainly would in the event of a pact).
And now, some questions:
- What would the effect of a pact with UKIP be on the Coalition with the Liberal Democrats? Andrew Lilico thinks there wouldn't be a problem. I'm not so sure.
- What would be the terms of a referendum and a deal? I don't see why Mr Farage and his party have anything to gain from anything less than a full-blooded In-Out referendum: no wonder he made insistence on it the main point of his conference speech yesterday. By the same token, I don't see why Mr Cameron has anything to gain from such a poll, which would divide his party from top to bottom, if not destroy it. UKIP would presumably also insist on a free run for some of its candidates at the next election, which leads to a last question, namely –
- Why should the Conservatives hand a chunk of Westminster seats, thank you very much, to another party? For however well UKIP may do in the Euro-elections under PR, it is most unlikely to win any under first-past-the-post.
Is it possible that, at some point in the future, both UKIP and the Conservatives (under Boris???) might settle for the kind of three-choice referendum that Andrew described yesterday, perhaps in the context of the Franco-German push for a new Core Europe?
Maybe. But until or unless it that happens, the balance of the argument suggests that the Tories have more to lose than win from a pact based on Mr Farage's present terms – unless one is to claim that the party would somehow gain from being divided in two.
Nor is it obvious that the rational sequence of events is to hold an In/Out referendum, and only then seek to negotiate terms of trade (and so on), rather than to seek to negotiate those terms of trade (etc) and then, if unsuccessful, hold an In/Out referendum.