Yesterday’s launch of the Brexit Party has inevitably left many observers wondering if Nigel Farage can repeat the breakthrough he managed with UKIP.
That requires us to look at a bit of recent history.
What actually happened in the heyday of the ‘People’s Army’ is more complex than the popular shorthand. Yes, there were fully fledged recruits to the UKIP cause – including ex-Tories, former Labour voters, and not inconsiderable numbers of people who were previously non-voters – but that was only part of the picture.
In practice, a lot of people split their votes between parties at different types of election. This has always happened, and is particularly visible in some areas when different types of election happen on the same day.
UKIP and the European elections were uniquely well-suited to delivering such vote-splitting. They had other messages and policies, of varying quality, but leaving the EU was obviously their most famous, and most fundamental. The European elections offered the perfect chance to give Brussels and the other parties a blunt rebuke – crucially as a free hit, without it affecting your council tax or the composition of the Government.
So that’s what people did: when UKIP won the 2014 European elections, their vote share in the local election on the same day was almost ten percentage points lower.
Plenty of otherwise lifelong Conservative voters backed UKIP at European elections. So, for that matter, did quite a lot of Conservative Party members. (That was one reason why David Cameron’s ”fruitcakes” attack went down so badly – plenty in his party had ex-Tory who were now in UKIP, and/or had voted UKIP themselves at the Euros.) I wouldn’t be surprised if some Conservative MPs had strayed into the purple column at a European election in the privacy of the voting booth.
So Farage and his colleagues won’t only be out to find fully-signed-up recruits to the Brexit Party; they know from experience that they must try to mine a vein of vote-splitters, too.
I gather several Conservative associations have been surveying their members lately to gauge the level of dissatisfaction with the Brexit postponement. I’ve seen one set of findings, from a safe Conservative seat in the Home Counties, which do not make pretty reading for the Party leadership.
Asked how they intend to vote at the European election, fewer than a quarter answered Conservative. Almost half opted for the Brexit Party, making it the single most popular option among that group of Conservative Party members. A rump replied UKIP, but I suspect that just as in national polls that represents a lingering sympathy with Farage-era UKIP, which the man himself hopes to cannibalise by publicising his new organisation.
It’s just one association, and it’s therefore a small sample, but if it’s anywhere even slightly near representative then it underscores the severe problem facing the Conservatives even as this campaign begins. And the scale of the opportunity for Farage and co.