We all deal with grief in different ways. Some who dislike the sight of Tory poll leads deal with them by denying the numbers (Tory pollsters!), some blame the voters (Gulled by The Sun into voting against their own interests!), and others try to argue that Theresa May’s method of winning over voters is unacceptable (She’s turned the Conservative Party into UKIP!). Of a barmy field, the latter is the most sensible – but it’s still founded on a nonsense.
Put briefly, the argument goes like this: yes, she’s doing well in the polls, but she’s done it by turning her party into UKIP.
There is at least a sort of vague attempt at a sliver of a half-basis for this one. In the local elections, there was a clear trend in which UKIP’s vote share collapsed – they lost every seat they were defending – and their former voters split heavily towards the Conservatives.
But is that a sin on May’s part? Success in democratic politics means winning over voters from other parties – it’s ridiculous to talk as though it is unacceptable to gain the support of someone who once voted for a party of which you disapprove. This fallacy leads Corbynites to dismiss the idea of attracting “the wrong sort of voter”, and dooms anyone who indulges in it to electoral failure. For those who spent years bemoaning UKIP’s rise to now criticise May for dismantling the so-called “People’s Army” by winning over its voters to a mainstream party of government is hypocritical at best.
Not only is it absurd to criticise her for this, but the analysis of how she has done it is simply false. The Conservatives have not, on any sensible measure, “become UKIP”.
Yes, May and her Party now support Brexit. But so did 17.4 million voters last June – four times the number who have voted UKIP in any given election. Trying to equate supporting Brexit, or even just accepting the referendum outcome, with somehow being UKIP is an understandable tactic for those who oppose it, but it is baseless. The fact that the Conservatives are winning over new supporters who voted Leave at the same time as retaining their lead among people who voted Remain is a pretty clear sign of that. The Remain campaign found out to their cost that this message didn’t resonate last year – now, it resonates even less.
In only one other respect could anyone even try to claim May’s Conservatism is Sir Nigel Farage in a better jacket: the Conservatives are pledging to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands. But that was also Cameron’s pledge, and nobody thought he was secretly UKIP. Notably, UKIP themselves have always argued that is too high a number.
At the same time, May’s wider agenda clearly isn’t that of the purple ex-peril. She is keeping the aid spending target, a regular focus of UKIP criticism. Today she repeats her commitment to deal with the “burning injustice” that members of ethnic minorities are more likely to be sectioned than white people – at a time when UKIP’s main offer on cohesion and integration is to propose genital inspections for all Muslim schoolgirls. All the while, UKIP continues to criticise her on every issue going.
So no, the Conservatives have not “become UKIP”. Instead, they are doing what major, successful parties do in any democracy – winning over voters from their competitors. They’re doing it in no small part by implementing Brexit, but despite increasingly hysterical rhetoric that is not the same thing as becoming “nasty”, as LBC’s James O’Brien claims, or a “monster”, as Matthew d’Ancona fears in The Guardian. This is simply how democracy works – if the Tories’ opponents don’t like the sight of others doing it, they should do it better themselves.