by Mark Stockwell
“Political correctness gone mad.” That’s what they’re all saying about Rotherham Council’s decision to remove three children from their foster parents because they had joined UKIP. In this instance, sadly, it seems they may have a point. Now it seems a fair few Conservatives are also intent on beating the well-trodden path to political insanity.
UKIP can clearly expect to do very nicely out of the foster-care furore.
As chance would have it, the good people of Rotherham go to the polls on Thursday to choose a new MP. Normally this would be a shoo-in for Labour – the town’s former MP, Denis MacShane, won with a handsome 5-figure majority over the second-placed Conservative in 2010 – but the circumstances in which MacShane was forced to stand down have left a nasty taste in the mouth.
There has been a controversy in Rotherham lately after the ill-starred local authority asked staff to bring their own IT equipment to work in an effort to cut costs. It turns out they could just have popped into see our Denis in his office, made him a few cups of tea, and walked away with one paid for by the taxpayer after all.
Now the storm over the three foster children means UKIP is ideally positioned as the party of protest against mainstream politics, especially in a town where it’s hard to see the party’s stance on immigration costing it too much support outside the council’s social services department.
A strong UKIP showing on Thursday, made all the more likely by the weekend’s revelations, would undoubtedly increase pressure on David Cameron to counter what many see as a real danger from the Conservative party’s right flank.
A number of Conservatives, either unconvinced by the efficacy, or out of sympathy with the intentions of Cameron’s attempts at modernisation – very often both – are seeking to exploit UKIP’s advance in the polls. Some, such as the relentlessly Eurosceptic MEP Daniel Hannan, have been promoting the idea of a Tory-UKIP electoral pact.
They were joined this week by none other than a vice-chairman of the Conservative party, in the form of Michael Fabricant. The MP for Lichfield published a rather curious “discussion paper” proposing that the Tories offer an in-out referendum in return for UKIP not fielding candidates against the Conservatives at the next general election.
Quite what a vice-chairman of the party thinks he is doing publishing such a pamphlet is beyond me. Grant Shapps unequivocally dismissed the idea, but by rights, Fabricant ought to be dismissed too.
It is a sign of how far removed from reality some on the right of the Conservatives remain, and of the extent to which the prime minister is beholden to them, that he feels unable to sack the blond-mopped one for fear of elevating him to the status of a martyr.
It would be a mistake for the Conservatives to deny there’s any problem. UKIP is riding the crest of a wave. The prolonged economic downturn and the eurozone crisis have focused attention on the issues of immigration and Europe which are UKIP’s bread and butter. And while Nigel Farage isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, many people find him an attractive and colourful personality. UKIP could topple Labour in Rotherham this week. And it’s no longer fanciful to suggest that they could top the poll in the European elections in 2014, too.
So it’s an easy argument to make that UKIP’s surge in the polls shows a more uncompromising approach on Europe and immigration would enhance the Tories’ electoral appeal and staunch the apparent bleeding of support to UKIP.
Easy but wrong.
There were 20-odd seats at the last election where the UKIP vote was bigger than the winning party’s majority over the Conservatives. So if the Tories had done more to win over UKIP support, they’d have won those seats, right?
The only reason the Conservatives got as close as they did was precisely because they had gone some way to shedding their image as a bunch of pink-in-the-face euro-obsessives who don’t have much time for foreigners or ethnic minorities, and often don’t make very much distinction between the two.
If they didn’t quite make it over the line, it’s because they hadn’t gone far enough down that route. Voters have given David Cameron the benefit of the doubt that he’s moved away from those attitudes – but they still need to be shown that he’s taking his party with him, that they’re no longer the “nasty party.”
What the Rotherham foster-care case shows is that UKIP haven’t shaken that image. They’re seen as somehow more mainstream than (say) the BNP – but they’re still not quite fully respectable.
They can use that to their advantage in isolated by-elections and low-turnout European polls. Farage seems to have realised this with his explicit rejection of Fabricant’s overtures. The last thing he wants – at the moment, at least – is to be clasped to the bosom of mainstream politics and the label of respectability hung round his neck.
The most charitable interpretation of Fabricant’s intervention is that it is an attempt to kill UKIP with kindness – as he puts it, “the final rapprochement between warring brothers.” But Farage isn’t interested in rapprochement just yet – he is holding out for a bigger prize. For the time being, UKIP is an insurgency, or it is nothing.
But UKIP are still in the position of having to explain that they’re not racists, and that their opposition to UK membership of the EU is not about hating the French/Germans/foreigners in general (delete as applicable). The more of that sort of explaining they have to do, the more they’ll lose support – not least among those who back them for precisely those reasons. And you can be sure that if there was any hint of a Tory-UKIP pact, the media and the left would (perfectly properly) be doing their damnedest to uncover anything nasty lurking under the UKIP rockery and using it to taint the Conservatives.
Whether or not David Cameron still believes that UKIP are, as he once described them, “a bunch of fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists,” there’s still enough suspicion among voters that this is the case, to make any association with them deeply damaging for the Conservative brand.
To the Tory right, desperate to plot a path to an overall majority, the UKIP vote must be a sorely tempting target. You get to talk tough on immigration and Europe – things which often come pretty easily to you in any case – and convince yourself that it’s also top political strategy which will bag you upwards of 20 seats towards that elusive majority. Happy days.
But the price of reaching out to UKIP would be to confirm in many people’s minds that all the talk of modernisation, compassionate conservatism, the big society, was just that – talk. The “nasty party” tag – already at risk of reasserting itself on account of the government’s approach to deficit reduction – would be back with a vengeance. And the Tories would find to their dismay that those marginal seats would remain, like Tantalus’s low-hanging fruit, forever just beyond their reach.
The Conservative leadership needs to be aware of the threat from their right. But to cosy up to UKIP? In the words of Enoch Powell, they’d have to be “mad, literally mad.”
Mark Stockwell is a former adviser to the Conservative party. He now works in public affairs