Will UKIP Sting David Cameron Into Greatness?
published in the Yorkshire Post 7 May 2012
The UK Independence Party have lodged themselves like sea urchin spines in the soft flesh of David Cameron’s Conservative Party. UKIP’s advance in the local elections is far more painful to Cameron than Labour’s. He can comfort himself that Labour did not win over many Tory voters: they managed simply to disenchant fewer of their own.
However, UKIP are now an existential threat to him. Their key policies at the local elections, withdrawal from the EU, immigration control, restoration of grammar schools, tougher sentencing, ending green taxes, appealed directly to traditional Tory supporters. The 700 seats UKIP contested were mainly in Conservative territory. They won 13 per cent of the vote and instant analysis suggests that at least half came from Tory voters in 2010. Repeated at a General Election such a performance would wipe out dozens of Tory candidates.
The UKIP surge gave Cameron’s party critics a perfect excuse to demand a shift to the Right. Two Tory heavyweights, David Davis and John Redwood, are cheekily presenting their own traditionally Conservative Queen’s Speech in advance of the real one next week. Most galling for Cameron, UKIP made no dent in Boris Johnson’s vote as London’s Mayor, proof to critics that a flamboyant radical can see off the UKIP menace.
However, Cameron would be mad to lurch to the Right. It would be a gift to Ed Miliband and free him from his painful task of reinventing the Labour party. It could break up the coalition and force a premature General Election. Above all, it would destroy the whole point of Cameron’s leadership, which was to change his party’s image and appeal. For Cameron to lead a right-of-centre Tory party makes as much sense as giving the new ball to Fred Trueman and asking him to bowl off-spin.
More practically, Cameron has been advised to correct his methods in government. He should stop taking refuge in foreign affairs and focus on the domestic agenda. He should drop boring and time-consuming legislation, such as Lords reform, and stop talking about vapid and fluffy ideas like the Big Society. He should ruthlessly sack any embarrassing ministers. He should be candid and contrite about his own mistakes, especially over the Murdoch empire. He should widen his circle of advisers and find a new Willie Whitelaw to stifle bad policies before they happen. Sound advice, but none of it will remove the UKIP problem.
Some Tories think there is a quick-fix solution: promise a referendum on continued membership of the EU. But after recent history from both parties, would it be believed? When would it happen and what choices would be offered to voters? Logically there should be three: leaving the EU, the status quo (in the EU but out of the eurozone), joining whatever eurozone is in being. But how does one decide who has won a three-choice referendum if none of the choices gets more than half the vote? Would a European referendum come before or after one on Scottish independence? If the Scots, in a European referendum, made a different choice from the rest of the UK would that represent a vote for independence? Suppose this also happened in Wales and Northern Ireland?
These are huge complexities, which will bring new tensions with the coalition, require negotiation with all the opposition parties, devour Parliamentary time and spook financial markets.
Rather than face all of these hazards, Cameron would do better to set out a personal vision for fundamental reform of the EU. That would set him apart from every British Prime Minister since Harold Macmillan. Each has either begged to be admitted, or else, once admitted, sought some kind of exemption or stay of execution from the rules. None has tried to set a European agenda. If Cameron offered Britain – and Europe – a better way to make political and economic decisions he would make history and get marks from all British voters for trying.
As a small but popular beginning Cameron might announce his plan for the complete repatriation of fishing policy – which the EU has shown itself unfit to manage. The next step might be the comprehensive Cameron reform of European agriculture – promising lower food prices for all European consumers, help for small farmers instead of giant agribusinesses, and rewards for sustainable and humane farming methods instead of indiscriminate industrial ones.
After these opening dramas, Cameron could call a new European Bretton Woods conference to prepare for the orderly restoration of national currencies for countries unwilling or unable to live with the euro. At this, he would table the “Cameron plan” to restore democratic sovereignty for all EU nations over economic and fiscal policy.
All of this should silence UKIP and Cameron’s party critics. It would leave Liberal Democrats and Labour dazed and confused. It would make Cameron a leading figure in Europe instead of a peripheral one. Above all, it would turn Cameron into an exciting Prime Minister, perhaps a great one, instead of what he is now – a beached swimmer full of sea urchin spines.