Conservatives Lose Their Place in the Sun

By Fraser Nelson and James Kirkup
Published June 14th 2004 in The Scotsman
THE honeymoon lasted less than 72 hours. For two glorious nights and one sunny Sunday, the Conservative Party had claimed 38 per cent of the vote and were 12 points ahead of Labour - for Tory strategists, this was bliss.

But it was bliss with a shelf-life. As the first indications from the European election started to come out last night, it emerged that the UK Independence Party was robbing the Tories of the handsome vote-share they claimed in the English local government elections.

Today, it will be Robert Kilroy-Silk’s turn to crow. As the frontman (but not the leader) of the UK Independence Party, the former talk-show host has shaken up the British political establishment.

The first results in from London and the north-east of England showed that both Labour and the Tories had seen their share of the vote plunge - and UKIP soar in the most unlikely places.

Britain has just experienced two very different elections with one theme: Labour being given a "kicking" - whether from its rather sorry result in Scotland to finishing third in the English local authority elections.

But last night’s European Parliament election results are more sophisticated - and show a far more accurate picture of voter sentiment in the UK.

The picture painted by the results this morning is not one that either Labour or the Tories will welcome. Britain’s two-tone political composition is becoming multi-coloured - and the proportional representation (PR) system used for the European elections allows us to watch on new colour sets.

The brutal truth of UK politics is that voters don’t much like either party. The overwhelming winner in last Thursday’s votes was the abstention party - the tens of millions who don’t vote because they find the choices on offer deeply uninspiring.

But the voting system can usher people into various camps. The less choice they have at election time, the more likely they are to choose the party which most closely represents their views.

Labour has old-style socialists whose fathers and grandfathers voted the same way: they will back Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, at the ballot box but secretly hope he will go. Former Tories will vote Labour, admiring the way Mr Blair handled the war, hoping that he will stay.

But UK opinion polls show two strands of opinion with no mainstream political home: these are outright hostility to the European Union and hostility to immigrants.

This is surprising only in as much as no major political party says this, no major newspaper espouses these views: they are underground political sentiments that have no home in the political consensus based around Westminster.

No party or paper routinely says "withdraw from the EU" or "shut the door on these unwelcome immigrants". Yet this is exactly what hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of voters think - and they care about this more than they care about Labour or the Tories.

UKIP has picked up both camps. Withdrawal from the EU is the party’s signature theme, but its campaign leaflets focused strongly on migration fears. It is diving into waters where other parties do not dare to wade.

In the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system - where a country is divided into constituencies and the winner takes all in each area - these voters are forced to choose one of two big players. And UKIP voters normally choose Tory.

But when let loose on the PR system, knowing their vote will not only be counted but stands a fair chance of electing a candidate, UKIP voters can choose their voice of protest.

In London, they spoke far louder than the anti-war noises being made by George Galloway, the Glasgow Kelvin MP who last night learnt he has failed to break into Brussels with 4.8 per cent of the vote. UKIP claimed 6.8 per cent.

The FPTP system has, for years, been covering up the anti-EU and anti-immigrant vote, which is demonstrated by the PR system used in the European Parliament. Each system delivers different results.

This is why Mr Howard always had much more to lose when the European Parliament elections were counted. The Tories had a far stronger contingent of people who had finally found a party (UKIP) that represents their views, but they chose Tory in the English local elections.

UKIP, of course, has been around for more than a decade. Founded in 1993 by Alan Sked, a London School of Economics professor who has since abandoned the party, UKIP had hovered on the fringes of politics but kept out of the mainstream by the big parties’ unspoken agreement that no matter how fierce the Brussels-bashing became, any talk of outright withdrawal was quite beyond the pale.

Norman Tebbit, Margaret Thatcher’s former party chairman, summed up the Tories’ struggle yesterday morning on Breakfast with Frost.

"I think voting UKIP for a lot of Conservative voters is a way of firing a shot across the bows of the Conservative Party. The trouble is that if they are not careful they could fire it a bit close to the waterline," he said, sticking as loyally to Mr Howard’s line as he could, before admitting in the next breath that "I understand the views of the people" who support the party.

UKIP supporters revel in this ability to cause the Conservatives such anguished confusion, much as the smoker who sucks 40 red Marlboro a day likes to deride those nibbling at low-tar brands: Wouldn’t you like a real smoke? Wouldn’t you like a real policy on Europe?

Many inside and outside UKIP expect Mr Kilroy-Silk soon to replace the party’s pedestrian leader, Roger Knapman, who has been effectively eclipsed by the party’s new star turn.

Perhaps more interesting will be the role played by some of the party’s off-camera chiefs. Max Clifford, the celebrity PR master with the most comprehensive address book in the industry, has quietly advised the resurgent UKIP. So has Dick Morris, an ex-aide to the former US president Bill Clinton.

Such heavyweight support suggests that UKIP may well be able to sustain some of its new-found prominence, especially with a transfusion of new blood in the form of newly-elected representatives such as Nicholas Hockney and Peter Cross, who last week won seats on the London Assembly.

"Don’t believe any of this nonsense about us fading away after the summer. We’ve raised our profile and started the debate - we’re not going anywhere," said one UKIP candidate last night.

This year, a cocktail of ingredients has combined to create a form of political dynamite that threatens to explode the existing two-party consensus. The first factor was Mr Howard’s urgent need to end the Conservative civil war over Europe, which led him to broker a peace-deal that prevents both the ardently pro and the furiously anti-EU camps from speaking out. Then UKIP acquired a high-profile frontman, in the ubiquitous form of Mr Kilroy-Silk. That, along with their frustration at Mr Howard’s position, helped persuade a handful of Eurosceptic tycoons to start giving serious money to UKIP.

And the political classes’ apparent acceptance that - even on the verge of another great lurch forward in the integration project - talk of outright rejection of the EU was off-limits, simply acted as the spark on the UKIP fuse.

The inevitable detonation that followed has very little to do with how many seats UKIP wins in the European Parliament. For the shrapnel from the blast has already wounded both the big parties.

Labour will now be keen to say that the Tories are split and facing a disaster. The situation, however, is far easier to manage. UKIP can be put back in its box quite easily: by using the FPTP election system next year.

Last night’s results appeared likely to show, beyond any doubt, that different election systems provide different results. Thanks to the European Parliament election result, we now know far better what the political mood and instincts of Britain really are.

But none of this matters, because the Westminster election system is designed to put a straitjacket on multiple political sympathies and pare it down into support for two or three parties. This system specialised in squeezing out parties like UKIP.

It may well be that UKIP, which has never had to struggle to find wealthy backers, puts up a number of candidates in the general election pencilled in for May next year. But there is little chance of it moving the real political debate.

James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party caused so much mischief under John Major’s government because any of three main parties could have promised a referendum on joining the European single currency. In the end, it influenced Labour’s manifesto.

However, pulling out of the EU is anathema to Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Neither party will buckle - and nor should the Tories. The two election results show that, in a first-past-the-post election, UKIP sympathisers will back Mr Howard.

And Labour, meanwhile, will continue with its strategy of arguing that Tories secretly think what UKIP says.

As last night’s elections showed, this is a tactic which will hardly weaken their opponent - there seem to be several million people who would, if this was the case, vote Tory. As Mr Blair licked his wounds over a second election drubbing last night, he would have learnt it is his party which may have more to rethink.