Tories: Fraying at the edges
Desperate anti-Europe posturing shows that the Tories are being pulled sharply to the right by Ukip, writes Eddie Ford
Nothing is going right for the Tories at the moment. An opinion poll published by The Observer on June 1 showed that support for the Conservative Party has dropped to 26%, whilst Labour is on 37% - and it almost goes without saying that the Liberal Democrats, facing possible decimation at the next general election, are languishing way behind on a wretched 6%. However, the most worrying finding for the Tories is that the United Kingdom Independence Party - not so long ago dismissed as a mere bunch of “fruitcakes” by David Cameron - are surging high on 21%, with the European elections less than a year away.
Clearly, Ukip now poses a very real threat to the Tories - even if it is the case that the Labour Party too is in long-term decline, not getting anywhere near the poll ratings it has previously enjoyed under the Tweedledum-Tweedledee British political-electoral system, which is now so clearly in serious trouble. Like a noxious acid, Ukip is eating away the Tory vote and its chances of forming a ‘true blue’ government at the next general election.
Even before The Observer poll came out, the Tories were still reeling from the developing scandal involving the MP for Newark, Patrick Mercer - the public school-educated former colonel who completed nine tours in Northern Ireland and latterly commanded a battalion in Bosnia. He resigned the Conservative Party whip following claims that he had tabled parliamentary motions after taking thousands of pounds from a fake lobbying firm purportedly representing “Fijian business interests” in a newspaper sting - to whom he admitted, or boasted, that he came cheap at £1,000 a day. Tory sleaze is back.
Unhappily for the Tories, Newark is regarded as a ‘natural’ hunting ground for Ukip. Indeed, Mercer recently invited Nigel Farage to address his constituency - the Ukip leader mischievously telling The Observer that he came away with the impression that the local Tory association was “closer to us than to their own leader”. Mercer himself has been widely touted as a possible defector to Ukip and you can see why. He was hurriedly sacked from Cameron’s shadow cabinet in 2007 after saying that as an army officer he had met a lot of “idle and useless” ethnic-minority soldiers who used false claims of racism as a “cover” for their laziness - after all, being called a “black bastard” was a just a normal part of army life (hard to deny). Then notoriously in 2011 he was taped at a prestigious party - doubtlessly after a drink or two - making extremely disparaging remarks about Cameron, describing him as “despicable” and the “worst politician in British history since William Gladstone”.1
Naturally, he is now coming under pressure to stand down as an MP before the next general election. Labour and Ukip, not to mention the likes of The Daily Telegraph - which has a distinctly ambiguous relationship to the Tory Party - are bound to agitate for a by-election, not unreasonably. As things stand now, Mercer is going to sit there for two years receiving a handsome wage (plus all the perks and expenses that come with the job), but who does he represent: his Newark constituents or Fiji? Farage denied that Mercer had any plans to switch to Ukip, claiming he had a strict code of loyalty - being an officer and a gentleman, of course. The Ukip leader has stated that he would not stand in Newark if Mercer did eventually quit, but another Ukip candidate would be found - perhaps Des Lynam? It is easy to imagine Ukip doing embarrassingly well. In fact, it is not entirely inconceivable that it could actually win the seat.
If things were not bad enough, the Mail on Sunday decided to run the dramatic headline story, “Number 10 rocked by secret love affair” (June 1). We are told that Cameron held “crisis talks” after being told of allegations of a “sensational” love affair between two “middle-aged figures”, neither of whom, it seems, serves in the current cabinet. When aides, we further read, told Cameron the identities of the alleged lovers he was “stunned” and, according to senior sources, “immediately realised the importance of the story” - worried that any public disclosures of the facts surrounding the affair could “blow out of the water” any major political set pieces planned by the prime ministerial team. Needless to say, the blogosphere and Twitter is awash with rumours - including the suggestion that the two “middle-aged” people concerned are men.
If the identity of the ‘tryst’ participants is revealed (the lawyers are on permanent stand-by) we are led to believe that the subsequent public shock will be at least as great as the disclosure of the affair - steamy or otherwise - between John Major and Edwina Currie, which was kept secret for nearly two decades until 2002. Cameron has also had to deal with other unwanted scandals in recent weeks. Leaving aside for now the non-story about Boris Johnson’s “love child”, there was the news that the Tory MP and deputy speaker, Nigel Evans, had been arrested following allegations that he raped one man and sexually assaulted two others between 2009 and 2013 - with the police investigating an alleged fourth victim, a former parliamentary intern aged 22-years-old, who claims that he was “intimately groped” by Evans in a House of Commons bar in 2011. Evans has branded all the accusations as “completely false”. Cameron must dread opening the newspapers in the morning or logging onto the internet, whatever the truth or otherwise of all or any of the above allegations.
However, there is yet another nightmarish scenario to contend with - losing next year’s European elections to Ukip. A not impossible outcome, given the elections are conducted under a form of proportional representation. The latest Com Res/Open Europe opinion poll, for example, has Ukip ahead on 27%, with Labour on 23%, the Tories on 21% and the Lib Dems (not trailing nearly so badly when it comes to projections for the Euro PR elections) on 18%.2
It is fair to say that coming third in such a way would be catastrophic for the Tories. It would undermine the morale of the grassroots activists - already alienated from the party hierarchy - and further diminish any hope of forming an outright Conservative government in 2015. The fact of the matter is that Ukip supporters/activists will be far more motivated to vote on the day and, more importantly still, Ukip will be able to scoop up the ‘anti-politics’ protest vote - its message being far more simple, directly linking immigration with the European Union. While those ‘politically correct’ metropolitan leaders are out of touch, Ukip speaks plain common sense - the Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians, etc are taking our jobs and depriving us of our housing. A simple explanation that requires a simple solution - getting out of Europe and asserting our own destiny as a nation again. Totally false and reactionary, of course, but a potentially very powerful message that could bring success for Ukip - something the Tories know only too well.
Almost inevitably, the Tories feel they have no choice but to make a dash to the right in an attempt to undercut Ukip. Hence the desperate, nonsensical posturing in the last week from the government. So William Hague pulls out his ‘red cards’ on Europe under the guise of making the EU “more democratically responsive”. His new proposal is to extend the ‘yellow card’ system already in place, under which parliaments can demand that a proposed law is reconsidered by the European Commission. The red card, naturally, would go further by blocking legislation altogether. Overtly appealing to potential Ukip voters, Hague complained that “too often” the British people feel Europe is “something that happens to them, not something they have enough of a say over”. Thus it was crucial, he said, to increase the role of individual member-states when it comes to EU decision-making. “Ultimately”, the foreign secretary continued, it is “national governments and national parliaments that are accountable to our electorates” - arguing that they are the “democratic levers voters know how to pull”.
Hague also outlined other “key challenges” for the EU, including deepening the single market in order to “improve competition”, creating a “business-friendly” regulatory framework and building “new trade partnerships”. Hague received the enthusiastic endorsement of Business for Britain, which believes that a “flexible, competitive Europe” with more powers devolved from Brussels is “essential for growth” and urges all political parties to commit themselves to a “national drive” to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU.3
Then we had Iain Duncan Smith’s huge hullabaloo about European migrants to Britain not being given equal treatment, much to the approval of the rightwing press. “At last!” rejoiced the Daily Express, as Smith “finally snubs EU rules and bans migrants from benefits” - now “determined to scrap any automatic eligibility for handouts” (June 3). The obnoxious work and pensions secretary wants to ensure no-one who has spent less than six months in Britain can access welfare. The new ‘six-month’ system will be drawn up after the department for work and pensions implements current plans to demand more evidence of residency rights from EU migrants - meaning migrants will be asked to go even further to prove that they have a permanent address. Would-be claimants will have to provide details of their mortgage or the length of their rental lease in order to secure eligibility - as well as explaining how exactly they have spent their time in the country.
Duncan Smith ordered for these plans to be fast-tracked after the EC launched a legal fight at the European Court of Justice over “discrimination” by the British government. The commission contends that British rules deciding how foreign EU nationals qualify for social security payments violates Britain’s ostensible commitment to a common EU system, which by definition includes eligibility for welfare. According to the EC, 28,400 applications for benefits from non-British EU citizens/nationals living in the UK had been rejected between 2009 and 2011 - two out of three applications. It believes many of them would have been granted were it not for the tighter ‘right to reside’ test, which was actually introduced by the last Labour government. Additionally, the commission also cited a London University study which found that EU nationals living in Britain paid in more to the social security system than they took out - highlighting the unfairness or discrimination.
Upping the nationalist, anti-EU rhetoric - you could almost call him swivel-eyed - Iain Duncan Smith thundered how he will “not stand by” and allow Brussels make a benefits “land grab” that could cost taxpayers £155 million a year, vowing to “fight every step of the way” the EC court case. Duncan Smith said he had been given assurances by Cameron that social security would be a “red line” for the Conservative Party in its broader ‘renegotiations’ with the EU. Douglas Carswell, a Eurosceptic Tory backbencher and libertarian, declared that the EC’s “lunatic and offensive decision” would just demonstrate to more people how “we need to leave the EU completely”. For Nigel Farage, the commission’s “audacity” provides clear evidence that in a Britain-versus-EU fight, “we just don’t win” and never can - so get the hell out of Europe.
By making a great show of bashing the Brussels bureaucrats and ‘standing up for Britain’, the Tories think they can steal Ukip’s clothes. In reality though, far from manifesting a display of principled resolve, it just adds instead to the distinct impression that the Tory Party is fraying at the edges - more concerned with holding the squabbling factions together than projecting a coherent political message that will change hearts and minds at the next general election. And Cameron does appear to be running scared of Farage, wanting to exclude him from future TV debates between the political leaders ahead of the general election on the grounds that he represents a party without any MPs - therefore Ukip is not a serious organisation. Never mind the 26% of the electorate who voted for Ukip at the local elections or the 16.5% in the 2009 European elections. Irrelevant. Unsurprisingly, Farage is threatening court action over the issue.
Unlike many on the left, we in the CPGB never thought that the coalition government was inherently weak and would fall apart at the first mass strike or demonstration - a pitiful illusion. However, like many others, we did think that after a few years the pressure would build up within the Lib Dems. Perhaps an MP or two would cross the floor of the house to Labour or a serious ruction would erupt at a party conference - especially as the Lib Dems are relatively open and democratic, compared to the ghastly, stage-managed events held by the Labour and Conservative control-freaks.
But it has not really panned out like that. A surprising feature of this coalition is that the Tories are proving to be the weakest link rather than the Lib Dems - who at the moment seem almost eerily united (though time will tell). The main explanation is that under the impact of the economic crisis society as a whole is moving sharply to the right - mainly because the left is not able to present a viable alternative. In a sign of the times, the fascist English Defence League is organising anti-Muslim demonstrations, the British National Party is ‘returning to the streets’ and Ukip is on the rise - pulling the Tories to the right.
1. The Daily Telegraph November 13 2011.