Comment and Analysis
Some time about 1.30 in the morning, I think it was Peter Kellner on the television – the memory is a little bit hazy after a fine bottle of Burgundy, quaffed while I waited for the results to roll in – who was having more than a little difficulty coming to terms with the UKIP result. He wasn’t the only one.
The proximate cause of his distress – and one which will exercise many a mind in the forthcoming months – was the news that UKIP was going to use its new-found resources and profile to mount a full-scale general election campaign and contest all the seats in Britain.
As Kellner analysed this detail, he concluded that such a strategy could not bring UKIP any seats and would only damage the Conservatives, possibly preventing them from winning the election, allowing the pro-Europe Labour party back in. "That", mused Kellner, "would be a spectacular own goal", shaking his head in disbelief.
However, if this strategy seems irrational to Kellner, and the many other pundits who have reached the same conclusion, it is only because they do not have the correct framework of reference to be able to understand what is happening.
They start with the assumption that UKIP is primarily an anti-EU party – which it is not. For sure, the core UKIP activists dislike the EU, but in fact they know very little about it. They have that vague dislike of something unpleasant – sinister even – over the water, run by foreigners whom they instinctively distrust.
Many of them – a very substantial proportion – see it is a Nazi construct and mutter darkly about "conquest by other means". Others see it as a West European version of the Soviet empire, while others are convinced that it is part of a darker plot to create a New World Order (always written in capitals), masterminded by American capitalists, the shadowy Bilderberger group or the equally shadowy "trilaterals".
Some of them believe it is all of them, the Nazis, Soviets, Bilderbergers and the trilaterals, all rolled into one dastardly plot to enslave free-born Englishmen, presumably as punishment for winning the last war.
But, if the UKIPites do dislike the EU, for all the reasons they articulate, or harbour, it is a matter of dislike. There is in fact, no real hatred. Johnny foreigner is inherently untrustworthy. You’d expect him to behave like that anyway, so he is only playing to form.
No, the real hatred is reserved for the Conservative Party. They are the class enemy, the traitors who betrayed England by selling bits of their beloved country down the river to the foreigners, and who have been plotting and scheming behind their backs to give even more of it away. Their ire is at its most splenetic when they contemplate "traitor Heath" – the name never written without the adjective - Major, Heseltine, Clarke and the rest.
To get a flavour of the relationship, consider the Scargillite Yorkshire miners and their dislike of Thatcher for her role in the miners' strike. She is indeed an enemy, but their really passionate hatred is reserved for their own kind, the Nottingham miners who broke the strike.
It is these "scabs" who are the class enemy and are therefore beyond the pale. In the UKIP litany of hatreds, the EU is to Thatcher as the Tories are to the "scabs". Thus, far from the Eurosceptic Tories being regarded as kindred spirits, they are treated with a special kind of loathing. They at least have seen the light but have put their careers and well-being first, rather than do the decent thing and come over to UKIP.
Within the hard-core UKIPite vision, no difference is seen in substance between the Conservatives, New Labour or the Lib-Dems. They all want to give the country away and, in historical terms, the Conservatives have done more to achieve this aim than any other party.
But, while selling out the country can be expected of Labour and Lib-Dems, something better is expected of the Conservatives. They are the custodians of the nation. Thus, if the battle is to be lost – and few UKIPites believe they can win – they will ensure that the Tories will not benefit from their treachery. The destruction of the Tories, therefore, has become the primary aim. If the whole edifice is to come tumbling down, then they will bring the Tories down with it.
Now with their 12 MEPs, the "dirty dozen", UKIP is fortified by their salaries and expenses packages, each worth approximately £250,000 – giving the war chest an injection of something like £3 million a year. Add to that the burgeoning membership income, and the continued support of multi-millionaires like Alan Bown and Paul Sykes, and UKIP have a sizeable campaign fund. Every spare penny of it will be devoted to bringing down the Tories.
This is not irrational, in the way that Kellner thinks. It's just that he still doesn't get it. But if you understand the conceptual framework, it makes perfect sense.
On this basis, there is nothing Howard, or any other Conservative leader can do to assuage the ire of UKIP, short of an absolute, unequivocal commitment to immediate withdrawal from the European Union. This, of course, no Conservative Party leader can do. It simply does not lie within the realms of political practicalities.
Yet, throwing policies off the sledge in the hope of distracting the wolves, hardening the Eurosceptic rhetoric will not work either. Each concession is interpreted as a sign of weakness, spurring the UKIPites on to redouble their efforts in seeking to achieve the ultimate goal – a Tory Party committed to EU withdrawal.
Nor can he appeal to UKIP's rational side – it hasn’t got one. The hard core do not want to know about the problems or consequences of withdrawal. They would be prepared to fill in the Channel Tunnel, erect barbed wire on the beaches and fill the seas with gun boats to keep Johnny Foreigner out. They have no coherent "exit strategy" and have refused to devote any resources to developing one. Rather, they would be content to see the country consigned to economic penury in pursuit of that single, all-embracing aim – withdrawal from the EU.
Tragically, therefore, neither will the other Conservative option work - "holding the line" and hoping that the broader electorate will see the sense of the Conservative arguments and return to the fold. Inaction will be seen – and portrayed by the UKIPites – as evidence of that arrogance and indifference to the voters wishes, and will be exploited with a vengeance. All Blair would have to do at the next election is sit back and watch UKIP and the Tories slug it out, and then move in to pick up the pieces – and a third term in office.
So what can the poor Tories do? Well, strangely, Howard has almost got it right. His commitment to opposing the euro and the constitution does create "clear blue water" between him , Labour and the Lib-Dems. And the policy of repatriation of certain powers is exactly what the bulk of the electorate wish to see. When push comes to shove, it is unlikely that an electoral majority would ever support an outright withdrawal from the EU, especially if the consequences were made clear.
The problem for Howard is the credibility gap. He may mean what he says, but few believe him. Somehow, he must provide the electorate with the evidence that his intentions are sincere. Rhetoric and promises alone are no longer good enough.
Howard’s best bet is to announce the formation of a powerful "task force" to embark on a nation-wide process of consultation and debate, with a view to fleshing out the policies that will replace those repatriated from the EU, and to devising the strategy to make sure that these policies are indeed repatriated. He can then appeal, with conviction, to the broader electorate, citing the plans that emerge as evidence of his intent.
By then pointing out the penalties of precipitate withdrawal, and the fact that UKIP simply have not thought through the consequences of their one and only policy, he can then marginalise UKIP and show it up for what it is – a party of dreamers, detached from reality, pursuing a vision of an independent England that never in fact existed and would not in any case be desirable.