Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Implications… and consequences

Although it is still early days, it is perhaps time for reflection on the implications, and consequences of a major UKIP "victory" in the Euro-elections.

Premature it might be because until all the votes are cast, anything can happen. We had the same sense of euphoria in the 1997 general election when, working for the Referendum Party. On the Monday before polling day we were getting excellent canvassing returns and all the positive signals that convinced us we were going to be sending members to Parliament. Two days later, former staunch supporters could not look us in the eye – the mood had changed and we knew it was all over.

For sure, the dynamics of a Euro-election are different. People are not electing a government, so they can afford to – as UKIP puts it – "lend" another party their vote, without fear of any serious consequences. Thus, we can assume, on the basis of the evidence we have at the moment, that UKIP will do well out of the election.

So, what are the implications and consequences?

Significantly, that will rather depend on how the Conservatives Party reacts to what it perceives as a "defeat". If it learns the right lessons, knuckles down and addresses the legitimate concerns of those natural Conservative supporters who felt impelled to vote for UKIP, then the damage can be contained. Many of the faithful will return to the fold for the election that really matters, the general election.

If it draws the wrong lessons it could make matters considerably worse. Already the Party, which had the glimmerings of electability under the leadership of Mr Howard, is damaged goods, as a result of its maladroit campaign. It has much ground to recover, which it must do very quickly.

But the signs are not good. From the different levels of the Conservative Party are coming mixed messages. At the grass roots, there is being expressed utter frustration at the inability of the leadership to understand the message they are being sent. At the top levels, however, there is a sense of betrayal. The view here seems to be that they are entitled to the unconditional support of the "other ranks" and are angry that they are not receiving it. In other words, the debacle is not their fault – it is the electors' fault for not voting for them!

Added to that there also seems to remain a combination of that arrogance and detachment which contributed to the collapse of the Tory vote in 1997. I listened to the World at One on BBC Radio 4 yesterday, which had Charles Moore talking about the Tories and their membership of the EPP. This, he said, would "reduce the credibility of Conservative Eurosceptic claims" - or words to that effect. The interview followed Moore's Saturday op-ed in the Telegraph - a newspaper that has something like 1,000,000 readers. Effectively, a very large number of the Tory constituency is "up to speed" on the EPP issue.

Yet, on the programme, Moore was followed by Liam Fox who was entirely dismissive of Moore's claims. His line was that no one would be interested in the "internal workings" of the European Tory Party. This shows that, far from actually getting the message, he is being stupendously arrogant. Fox conveys precisely that message to which I referred. The Party hierarchy consider they have a God-given right to support and if it is not forthcoming then it is our (or anybody else's) fault, but not theirs.

What seems now possible is that the Party hierarchy, failing to understand the message it is being sent and fortified by an unwarranted sense of grievance, will turn on their former supporters and drive them further from the camp. The result could be a split Party, in disarray, allowing Blair to sweep to victory at the general, by default.

From there, starting from a base of speculation, we now move deeper into unknown territory. Generally, the perceived wisdom is that we are looking to a general election in the spring/early summer of next year. But that timetable depends, in part, on the fate of the constitutional IGC in twelve days time. If the constitution is agreed then, this gives Blair time to take the combined ratification and referendum Bill though both Houses and gain Royal Assent before Parliament is dissolved for the election.

The European issue is then neatly sidelined, as the debate can be postponed until after the election. Blair and his cronies can concentrate on domestic issues, depriving the Conservatives of the one issue on which they score well.

So far, so good. But if the agreement on the constitution is delayed until, say, December, under the Dutch presidency, the timetable is shot to pieces. There will not be time before the election to pass the Bill. The ratification question will be hanging – open for Mr Howard to campaign on a platform of refusing to ratify the treaty. That would put the European issue at centre stage, something that Mr Blair would travel a million miles to avoid.

Blair could, of course, delay the election until the autumn – not the best of times, but at least his Bill would be successfully through the Houses. However, in the latter part of the year – we are now in 2005 – the UK hold the presidency of the EU. A general election would be out of the question. A delay in the outcome of the IGC, therefore, could possibly push the general election into the spring of 2006. Going full-term is electorally risky, of course, but it is an option.

There is, nevertheless, another option. If the IGC fails, Blair could call a snap election this year, on or around October. He could thus exploit the disarray of the Tories, leaving them no time to recover from their June Euro-election defeat. Aided by UKIP which could draw sufficient votes from the Conservatives to deprive them of essential seats, Blair could sweep into power for the third time, by default.

He would then have a free hand to take his ratification Bill through Parliament, and then hold the referendum at his leisure, relying on his authority as a newly mandated leader to con the electorate, much as Wilson did in the 1975 referendum.

There are, of course, other scenarios, not least that the constitution is not agreed, relieving Blair of the need to hold a referendum. That would be helpful as, again, it would take "Europe" off the agenda – although it could hurt UKIP as its pitch at a general election would lose much of its force.

However, the potential damage caused by its maladroit Euro-election campaign, if exacerbated by an equally maladroit response, could damage the Conservative Party sufficiently to ensure it remained in opposition.

Much, therefore, rests not on the election on Thursday – for those who are still allowed access to a ballot box – but on the actions and events in the weeks and months afterwards. As they take shape, we will have a better idea of how the drama will unfold.

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