Sunday, June 13, 2004

Howard’s way - forward

The word is getting out. Several newspapers this morning are telling the same story. According to The Independent, "Labour Party managers" fear that UKIP could "emerge as the sensational victors" of the Euro-elections. Labour's exit polls have shown that UKIP has polled "disproportionately heavily" in the south-west of England, making it possible that its share of the national vote may be higher than any other party's.

"Labour's polling also shows the Conservatives ahead of Labour, with the Liberal Democrats in fourth place. One senior Labour source says: 'UKIP could be first, second, or they could be third. It's difficult to tell, because we don't know exactly where their votes are coming from. A lot are coming from people who don't normally vote at all.'"

That last comment is particularly significant. Sources in UKP believe that the party may have been successful in attracting a large number of "Euro-virgins" to their cause, motivating them sufficiently to cast an anti-EU vote. This could upset predictions for further elections as these "virgins" have no fold to go back to. Having tasted blood in this election, they may have caught the voting habit and cast their votes in the general election in a wholly unpredictable way.

That apart, Nick Wood, the Conservative Party's media director, 2001-2003, offers his observations in The Independent on the expected "Euro-rout". He notes that, a few weeks ago, hardly anyone in senior Conservative circles thought that UKIP would prove to be much more than a minor irritation.

"The received wisdom", he writes, "was that both the local and European elections would be a referendum on Blair and his government. Accordingly, Michael Howard went negative, constructing a campaign built around the slogan Let Down by Labour and seeking to capitalise on Labour's domestic unpopularity. Charles Kennedy did much the same - making his party's opposition to the Iraq war the core of his appeal for town hall and European votes.

"At the time", Wood concludes, "Howard's strategy seemed sound. Only now, with the luxury of hindsight, have the flaws become apparent." He identifies three things that went wrong: UKIP hired Dick Morris, who gave the party a simple, clear message; second, it made Robert Kilroy-Silk its front man; and third, UKIP became the home for the protest vote which "had to go somewhere", and the Tories were not seen as the natural repository because they were not yet in "election-winning shape".

Wood is right about UKIP being underestimated by the Tories, but they can hardly be blamed for that. At the beginning of the campaign, many people outside the UKIP party zealots thought that the party would be hard-put to retain its three seats, especially as the number available had been reduced. The Dick Morris influence is probably overstated as much of the thinking and strategy was in place before Morris arrived. What made the difference was the backing of two multi-millionaires, Alan Bown and Paul Sykes, who stumped up the money to make it happen.

They, in turn, were influenced by the arrival of Kilroy. He suddenly seemed to give UKIP the aura of electability, but his recruitment was a stroke of good fortune. Courted for many years by the party, he has always been reluctant to pitch in and, had he not been fired by the BBC from his day job, he would not have touched UKIP with a barge pole.

If UKIP won it, the Tories also lost it, through a series of tactical errors. The first was to under-rate the electoral significance of the Tory European group deciding to stay aligned with the federalist EPP group in the European parliament. Thought to be an arcane technical issue, the lid was blown wide open by Charles Moore in the Telegraph and many horrified Tory supporters rushed into the arms of UKIP.

Secondly, when Howard and his party managers did perceive UKIP to be a threat, they relied on an extraordinarily badly crafted "attack" briefing produced by the Conservative Research and Development unit, which managed both to patronise and vilify Conservative core supporters. The result was a rush order for "proud to be a gadfly" badges and a hardening of the UKIP vote.

Finally, Howard was to pay for the years of indecision and lack of clarity in the Party on the whole issue of the EU, leaving the party leader floundering on the Today programme, under the incisive – and well-briefed – attack from John Humphrys, sounding shifty and uncertain.

On that basis, Wood's analysis is not convincing. Perhaps it is just as well that he is the Conservative Party's former media director – because his recipe for recovery is not much better either. "Howard needs to make clear that under him, a future Tory government will insist upon a new long-term relationship with Brussels and one that halts the federalist ratchet for good", he writes.

That is not the point. Mr Howard has already told everyone who will listen that he intends to do that. The trouble is that no one believes him. Until he can come up with a credible and realistic way of turning rhetoric into action, the disbelief will continue.

Howard does not, as Wood suggests, have to "harden his anti-European policies and rhetoric". People are sick to the back teeth of "policies and rhetoric". They want action. He has to convince them that what he already says he intends to do will actually happen. That needs to be Howard's way forward.

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