Monday, March 14, 2005

Neither dead nor buried

As the general election comes closer, candidates from all parties are going through the ritual of writing the texts for their own personal electoral addresses, nervously wondering which combination of words to use, and which particular set of issues that they should pick, in the hope that what they write might just make the difference.

What we would have expected, though, is that "Europe" would feature relatively low down on most prospective MPs horizons. Although the issue will be there – that great elephant in the room – we did not anticipate that it would be an issue which would guide most electors to cast their votes.

It was something of a surprise, therefore, to read in The Sunday Telegraph yesterday that up to thirty Conservatives candidates in hotly-contested seats were making pre-election pledged to withdraw from the EU if the Conservatives form the next government

According to the Telegraph, this is being done with tacit agreement from the party leadership, which is allowing the use of carefully crafted words such as a pledge to campaign for "an independent Britain" – the code phrase for EU withdrawal.

Unnamed "senior Tory officials", says the Telegraph, have "revealed" that Michael Howard has signalled to candidates that he is content for them to unleash the full extent of their anti-European passion during the forthcoming election campaign.

That one of the candidates taking this line is Douglas Carswell, the Tory candidate for Harwich in Essex, is not surprising though. Harwich, held by Labour with a 2,596 majority, is a key Tory target. But, in 1997 it saw the largest vote in the country for the Referendum Party at 4,923 or nearly 10 per cent of the vote. Now, UKIP is stepping up the pressure this time by fielding the MEP Jeffrey Titford.

Therein lies an intriguing part of the story, not picked up by the Telegraph. Through all the travails of UKIP, and its running fight with Robert Kilroy Silk, culminating in him forming his own party, Veritas, the Eastern Region, for which Titford is MEP, has been a haven of tranquillity. Under his quiet, undemonstrative leadership, none of the UKIP branches have broken away to join Veritas and their machinery remains in place, quietly building a following.

In that respect, UKIP is doing its job, quietly pushing the Tory party into a more Eurosceptic stance, creating that essential divide in British politics where the EU ceases to be a "consensus" issue amongst the political élites and starts becoming a matter for party political debate. From the look of it, therefore, “Europe” may stay on the agenda during the general election campaign. It is neither dead nor buried.

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