Sunday, May 30, 2004

UKIP at the centre?

For once the European elections (a yawn a minute exercise for most people) seem to be revolving round UKIP. Not a day passes by but they are in the news. Whether that will translate itself into votes will be seen on June 10.

The more europhile media like the BBC, the Guardian and the Independent alternate between gloating and foaming at the mouth, calling UKIP every dirty political name they can think of. But as they do that to all eurosceptics, it hardly matters.

The more Conservative media seems stumped. On the one hand there are pictures of the celebs who now support UKIP – Kilroy-Silk and Joan Collins most recently; on the other hand the Telegraph is making valiant efforts to minimize possible damage to the Conservative Party in the European elections.

Today the Sunday Telegraph trots out Dr Alan Sked, the founder and first parliamentary candidate of the Anti-Federalist League and, subsequently, UKIP. He gives all the reasons why he is voting Tory, enumerating all the problems with UKIP policies (there are none, to speak of) and behaviour of their MEPs (somewhat pathetic). But as he has done this at all previous elections, it is not clear whether his article will have any effect.

The presence of celebs in the political process has never been properly evaluated. Do they attract votes? Do they repel potential supporters? As with advertising in general one never knows which five per cent works.

Perhaps the biggest story around UKIP in political terms is the rebellion of the peers. Led by the redoubtable Lord Pearson of Rannoch, five Tory peers joined seven cross-bench ones to sign an open letter, urging voters to forsake their traditional allegiances for the European elections and vote UKIP.

Their argument is persuasive. As Lord Pearson puts it:

"Within the party we have failed to persuade Michael Howard to take a much tougher line towards the EU," he said.

"A solid swing to UKIP on June 10 might help to do so. The only party which might save our democracy, our right to govern ourselves, from the corrupt octopus in Brussels is the Conservatives.

"But the only people at the moment who can make the Conservative leadership see sense are UKIP."

Typically, the media has ignored the cross-bench peers, never fully understanding the importance of independent members of the House of Lords. They have given space to the fact that the Conservative whip was withdrawn from four Tory peers: Lord Pearson, Baroness Cox of Queensbury (the well known fighter for human rights Caroline Cox) and Lord Stevens of Ludgate. The fifth peer, Lord Laing of Dunphail, in true Soviet tradition, recanted.

Lord Pearson remains unrepentant. Justifiably annoyed that he found out the news from a journalist who phoned him for comment, rather than from the Leader of the Conservative Party in the House of Lords, Lord Strathclyde, he repeated that he saw no other way of pushing the Conservative Party towards an opposition to the EU.

"The EU constitution is indeed a tidying -up exercise," he added. "It sweeps the rest of our sovereignty under the Brussels carpet."

Yet an even greater sign of the Conservative Party’s desperate fumbling on this issue is their withdrawal of the whip from Lord Willoughby de Broke, one of the hardest working and most active peers in the House, though he has never held a paid ministerial job. He is not as well known in the media as Lord Pearson, but he is as important in politics. Furthermore, he is a scion of an old and active Tory family.

If Michael Howard and Lord Strathclyde are prepared to dispense with people like him to pacify their minute europhile constituency, they really have lost the plot.

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