Shortly after former Tory MP Mark Reckless had defected to UKIP and triggered a by-election (special election) in his Rochester and Strood constituency, David Cameron vowed that the Conservatives would stop Reckless from getting “his fat arse back onto the green benches” of the House of Commons. Well, the Tories did what they could, but there was no bum’s rush for the fat arse. On November 20, Reckless regained his seat with a lead of roughly 7 percent over his Conservative rival, a result rather better than generally expected at the time he announced his defection. Rochester and Strood was not thought to be natural UKIP territory. In preparing Revolt on the Right, an indispensable guide to the rise of UKIP, British academics Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin ranked every constituency in Britain for its likely receptiveness to UKIP. Writing in the Financial Times after the vote, Goodwin noted that Rochester and Strood sat quite some way down on the list, in 271st place to be precise.
Yet Reckless won. British by-elections are notorious for generating freak results. Turnout is low, and electors feel freer to cast a protest vote than they do at a general election, when the stakes are viewed as far higher. Reckless might find it tough to hang on to the seat when the whole nation goes to the polls in May next year.
But UKIP is not going away. Barring schism or major scandal, the party will be a serious player at the general election. First-past-the-post is cruel to outsiders, and UKIP may not win many seats (five or so, if I had to guess) in the 650-strong House of Commons, but it will grab a large number of votes across England, if not in Britain’s Celtic periphery. Opinion polls have been all over the place, with some even showing UKIP running north of 20 percent, but the party appears to have a solid core of support in the mid teens. The traditional assumption, based on UKIP’s historical failure to repeat at home the success it’s had in EU elections, has been that most UKIP voters will return to one of the establishment parties in a general election. In the 2009 elections to the EU parliament, UKIP took 16.5 percent of the British vote. In the general election the next year, that shrank to a little over 3 percent, a sliver, but still enough to cost the Conservatives some 20 seats and, with that, any chance of a clean parliamentary majority.
History does not always repeat itself. The year 2015 will not be 2010. In this year’s EU parliamentary elections, UKIP’s share of the vote shot above 27 percent. Falling straight back to 3 percent from such a height is improbable. And this is not just a matter of math. UKIP remains perilously dependent on the charisma of Nigel Farage, but over the last five years it has (from a very low base) developed much more in the way of an infrastructure. Crucially, it is building the grassroots networks that are usually a precondition of parliamentary success in the UK. UKIP’s local election gains in recent years suggest that its sympathizers will now be much more likely to entrust the party with their vote at the general election, something that polling data would also appear to confirm. That’s not to say the party will relive its European triumph. It won’t. Its score will drop sharply down from that peak, but not nearly far enough down to see David Cameron back in Downing Street.
And UKIP is still primarily a Conservative problem. There’s been a lot of talk of late about the progress that UKIP (a party of the Right) has been making with voters in traditionally Labour seats long abandoned by the Tories. That’s a real phenomenon, but, however unappealing Labour leader Ed Milliband may be (very), UKIP’s advance into his heartland ought not to represent a serious danger to his chances in 2015. Labour majorities there tend to be disproportionately large. Under pressure from UKIP, these may shrink a bit in some constituencies, but the MPs elected will still be Labour, at least in England and Wales. (In Scotland, Labour faces a daunting challenge from the insurgent nationalists, but that’s a different story.)
In one ironic respect, UKIP’s ability to attract former Labour voters (or, not infrequently, voters who haven’t made a habit of voting) is yet more bad news for the Tories. UKIP more or less began as a family fight within the Right, and some Conservatives have hoped that the threat of a Labour win (Labour has long enjoyed an edge at the polls) might drive the two parties together, formally or informally, locally or nationally, in a joint effort to see off Red Ed. UKIP’s increasing sense of itself had already rendered any reconciliation an ever-diminishing prospect, but the party’s push into Old Labour domains has killed it off outright. Farage has harvested as many disaffected Tories as he can for now. He knows that UKIP’s next wave is coming from voters who would be unimpressed by any pacts with the party of Thatcher.
The fact that UKIP’s pursuit of these voters has been accompanied by something of a shift to the left in its mood music only makes matters more complicated for those on the euro-skeptic right who are wondering how to cast their votes in May.
Conservative-party loyalists don’t see the difficulty. Even allowing for the constraints of coalition, David Cameron’s government has a respectable economic track record and plenty to be proud about when it comes to education and welfare reform. The Conservatives are the only establishment party promising an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU. If Labour slips into power courtesy of a divided Right, the usual malign mismanagement will follow, made yet more poisonous by the party’s europhilia. The opportunity of a referendum will be lost, perhaps for good. Euro-skepticism is strongest among the old and the middle-aged, gray-hairs able to remember life outside the EU and still susceptible to the enchantment of a grander past. But this is a fading cohort: “Brexit” (Britain’s departure from the EU) could well end up being buried in a grimly literal way.
On the other hand, the government’s economic scorecard has been soiled by the immense cost of its nutty de-carbonization policies — policies that UKIP opposes. Immigration has, despite Tory promises to the contrary, continued to run at an alarmingly high level, a failure that has played a large part in UKIP’s success.
And the referendum is not the trump card that it ought to be. The promise to call one had to be wrenched out of Cameron, and it was accompanied by the prime minister’s insistence that voters would be able to choose between Brexit and the improved, implicitly more sovereign status for Britain within the EU that he would negotiate with the U.K.’s European partners by the time the promised deadline for a referendum expired in December 2017. But there’s a problem: The legal and political structure of the EU cannot accommodate any significant repatriation of sovereignty. Cameron understands this perfectly well, so he’s opted for some sleight of hand.
On November 28, the prime minister proposed changes to British welfare rules to reduce immigration from elsewhere in the EU. How such changes can be accommodated by Britain’s European “partners” in a manner consistent with EU law is a highly technical problem, already controversial, and far from straightforward politically, but Cameron will undoubtedly try to make them the centerpiece of the “renegotiation” that will allegedly make it safe for Britons to vote to remain in the EU in 2017. This is a message (which will be backed by the establishment parties, big business, and much of the media) that most Brits — nervous about the supposed dangers of life “outside” but unhappy about immigration — will want to hear, so they would probably opt to stay in the EU. If they did, that would secure Britain’s EU membership far more firmly than dodging a referendum altogether.
Tinkering with the rules that govern benefit payments would do nothing to extricate the U.K. from the relentless machinery of the EU’s “ever closer union,” a fact that will not be lost on any euro-skeptics who are paying attention. Cameron’s clever con trick is a reminder that, however unsatisfactory UKIP can often be, Nigel Farage’s party remains the most effective mechanism there is for dragging the Conservatives to the right and (the two need not be the same thing) away from the Brussels path. Still playing the political game as if it were 2006, David Cameron would, even now, prefer to keep the Conservatives on an alt-Blair course, an approach that specifically ruled out, as he then put it, “banging on about Europe.” Thanks to UKIP, he hasn’t been able to avoid doing so, but the prime minister’s latest maneuver shows how keen he is to change the subject away from that pesky and intrusive continent.
Nigel Farage’s best hope is that the election will leave UKIP holding the balance of power. That’s unlikely. Nevertheless, if UKIP wins some seats and racks up an impressive tally of votes across the country, it will send a useful signal to the Tories (and to Labour, too). Seen from that perspective, the euro-skeptic Right should vote UKIP in the few seats where UKIP has a real chance of winning and in the many where the Conservatives have no hope of prevailing. Elsewhere, vote Conservative.
What happens then will depend on the election results. If, as I expect, the Conservatives lose, there will be a fight for their leadership. The aim then — for Tory euro-skeptics — ought to be seeing the party set on a direction pointing to Brexit, but in a manner that doesn’t scare off those millions of potential voters who would regard such a policy as a mark of extremism, irresponsibility, or both. This will be a battle that matters: Brexit is going to need the support (but not the brand) of an establishment party. UKIP cannot do it alone.
In this connection, it’s encouraging that Owen Paterson, a former cabinet minister on the Tory right (and perhaps a future leadership contender), made on November 24 a powerful, carefully considered speech in favor of Brexit that went a long way beyond the usual flag-waving. The flag matters, but the details do, too. Explaining how Brexit would be structured and why it will work is essential if the scare stories (Millions unemployed! Alone in the world!) of the “yes” camp are to be rebutted.
Mass immigration, the ascent of Nigel Farage, and the woes of the single currency have brought British euro-skepticism forward to a degree that would have seemed incredible just a few years back, but Brexit still remains far out of reach. Mr. Paterson is showing how to bring it closer.
— Andrew Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online.