Cameron’s flirtations with the UKIP agenda are grist to Ed Miliband’s mill

by Mark Stockwell

At the Conservative party conference back in October, David Cameron gave a strong speech reiterating his commitment to modernisation and ongoing detoxification of the Conservative brand.  It was an encouraging indication that in spite of all the rumblings about Boris Johnson and a return to a more traditional Conservative agenda (whatever that means), wise heads still prevailed within the prime minister’s inner circle.

It was always questionable whether Cameron could translate the warm reception his speech received into a firmer grip on his rambunctious backbenchers, and the outcome of the simultaneous by-elections in Middlesbrough and especially Rotherham in November put paid to any such hopes.

A sizeable caucus of right-wingers seized on the supposed “UKIP surge” to try to hijack the Conservative agenda and shift it their way. Some – bizarrely – even talked openly of suing for peace with Nigel Farage’s motley crew and trying to persuade him to stand down UKIP candidates come 2015.

Despite the fact that another by-election, in Croydon North, the same day showed very little sign of a similar pattern, they were (eventually) rewarded with the prime minister’s speech in January, promising a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.

Then came the Eastleigh by-election at the end of February, widely portrayed – not least by the same ideologically-driven section of the Conservative Party – as a humiliating setback for the prime minister and a rejection of the “metropolitan liberal” agenda they believe he stands for. This despite the fact that the seat was won by, er, the Liberal Democrats – a governing party in mid-term, mired in scandal and with a personally very unpopular leader, a pro-EU platform and a ‘liberal’ stance on immigration.

Cue more wailing and gnashing of teeth from the right about the supposed threat from UKIP, further fuelled by traditionalist angst over the vote on same-sex marriage earlier in the month. Although given that this issue was apparently going to tear the Conservative party apart, it would be remiss not to note that less than two months down the line, nobody much is talking about it anymore – this side of the Atlantic at any rate.

At the time of the same-sex marriage vote, I wrote that it would make the traditionalists more dependent on Cameron, as they were distancing themselves ever further from the mainstream of public opinion, while the prime minister was positioning himself in line with it. The malcontents are not, for the most part, fools – they can read opinion polls and they can see the Party trailing consistently behind Cameron personally. They realise full well that Cameron remains the Conservatives’ best hope of securing a majority in 2015 – on which, of course, hangs the fate of their yearned-for in/out referendum.

What’s not clear is whether Cameron believes that himself. How else to explain his largely incomprehensible intervention in the immigration debate last week, other than as  a cack-handed attempt to throw another bone to the right-wing dogs who yap behind him? But while the EU referendum speech had something specific to say and set out a significant new policy – whatever its merits – this latest foray was devoid of either.

The PM didn’t even get to announce the breakup of the UK Border Agency, itself probably largely meaningless, leaving that to the home secretary later in the week. Are relations really so bad between Cameron and his latest would-be rival, Theresa May, that No 10 can’t even co-ordinate this sort of thing with the home office and at least give the PM something solid to point to? As it is, the speech has had precious little impact, other than to show those who are inclined to bark that if they continue to do so loudly enough, the PM will shift his ground.

Some will argue that politics is the art of compromise and that it is inevitable that any prime minister – let alone one leading a coalition government – will need to tack and alter course to deal with the occasional headwind. That’s all well and good. But it’s becoming less and less clear that the PM and those around him know where they are meant to be headed. In the absence of a clear and unwavering commitment to the modernising agenda on which he was elected leader, he will inevitably be driven back to harbour by those who never wanted to be modernised in the first place.

The prime minister’s speech to the Conservatives’ spring conference a few weeks ago once again gave the impression that he remained focused on the real threat to his party’s hopes of a majority, which is, of course (and it’s depressing to feel the need to spell this out), the Labour party.

But all too often now, he gives the impression of being confused by the wavering needle on his strategic compass, so that it is more like the broken clock that is nonetheless right twice a day.

There’s a reason every Labour MP seems to be on a bonus for using the phrase “same old Tories”. The PM’s troubling flirtations with the UKIP agenda are grist to Ed Miliband’s mill.

Mark Stockwell is a former adviser to the Conservative party. He now works in public affairs

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3 Responses to “Cameron’s flirtations with the UKIP agenda are grist to Ed Miliband’s mill”

  1. Ex-Labour says:

    There are some blogs on this website that are utter drivel and this is one. The fact that it comes from an ex Conservative advisor make it more dismal.

    You conveniently ignore the fact that Labour made no impression in the Eastleigh election despite supposedly riding high in the polls. If a party is this far ahead mid-term then it should be making significant in roads in these constiuencies. UKIP scored highly in Eastleigh which suggests their policies, particularly on immigration reflect the public mood. Labour’s recent totally misguided mutterings on the subject have done little to improve their standing with the public. The main party leaders are all trying to ignore public sentiment, but at least some of the Tories are pushing their leadership to listen and look at the polls.

    The public don’t really care about issues such as gay marriage, this is just the Hampstead chatterati’s cause celeb. People are interested in the big issues of health, eductation etc.

    Ed Miliband and Labour have yet to put any policies into the public domain for scrutiny. Apprently they are 6 months into a two year review which means they wont say anything until a few weeks before the next election giving the public very little time to “read the small print”.

    Miliband and Balls are the two assets the Conservatives want in Labour. Both will be electoral liabilities.

  2. swatantra says:

    april fool! nearly got me, there!
    ‘same old labour’.

  3. Kevin Barry says:

    Mark Rockwell’s piece has performed the task of illustrating, with examples, the turmoil that passes for the Conservative Party these days. The talk of ‘stalking horses’ and whispering campaigns against both the prime minister and Mr Osborne are regular occurrences these days, with economic growth stalling, and increasing panic as May 2015 approaches.
    Just because one may disagree with a blog doesn’t necessarily make the said blog ‘drivel’.
    The electorate was not convinced by the Conservative Party in 2010, hence no overall majority.
    Yes, the Labour Party has to provide a credible economic policies to the UK electorate in the forthcoming general election. One thing is for certain: Mr Osborne’s economic strategy is most certainly NOT working.
    As for Eastleigh, has Labour ever held that seat? No. The Tory vote was effected, as it surely will be, between now and 2015, by the intervention of UKIP – which is fine by me.

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