The idea of a pact with UKIP has been either ignored or sharply denunciated by the Tories. Recent polling indicates that the question is one that has been given more thought by voters and party members and shows a firming of opinion against a pact. Interestingly, writes Simon Usherwood, suggestions of a pact are now coming from the Tories rather than solely from UKIP.
During the 25 year history of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) one of the more persistent questions has been its path to power and influence. As I have argued elsewhere, this can be understood with the framework of the old Green dilemma of Fundis and Realos: i.e. do you keep true to your core principles and their necessary consequences, or do you work within the system to maximise your chances of getting to the top? In UKIP’s case, as with the Greens, it has been the Realos who have predominated over time, both because the focus of the party has broadened out and because the initial fervour has been overtaken by the internal politics of the party.
However, all of this has also meant that the question of UKIP’s relations with other political parties has long been moot. On the one side, there is no great love lost between party leaderships, but on the other there is a recognition that at least some individuals in other parties are sympathetic to UKIP’s key goals on European integration and immigration. The upshot of this has been a repeated cycle of discussing electoral pacts. This usually takes the form of UKIP offering not to stand against Tory (and other) candidates who sign pledges to fight for British exit from the European Union (EU), although sometimes the initiative comes from the Tories themselves.
Historically, the response has been either one of ignoring the offer or of sharp denunciations of the idea. For the Tories, even entertaining the idea of a pact would be to legitimise UKIP far beyond their political weight (certainly in terms of elected representatives). Despite this, it is still something that rolls around again from time to time. And thus is has been with the Conservative Home poll this week that asked for opinions on the matter. The chart below shows how opinion has moved since the last poll by the website last March.
Last year’s data can be best summarised as ambivalent, with as many people not knowing as in favour or opposed. The current poll suggests that ambivalence has disappeared, with the result that there is a majority in opposition to the idea. This tells us a number of things.
Firstly, it indicates that the question is one that has been given more thought by voters and party members, as indicated by the almost complete disappearance of don’t knows. This is not so surprising given the work done by Lord Ashcroft and others on the matter and by the continued high profile of UKIP in the media and the opinion polls: consider it a re-run of the 1997 Referendum Party scenario, where the folklore of the Tories is that they lost seats by splitting their vote (even if this doesn’t quite match the psephological analysis).
Secondly, the firming of opinion against a pact is understandable as a mark of the threat that UKIP is felt to pose to the Tories. Despite the research by Rob Ford and others on the broad-base of UKIP support, the Tories continue to perceive it much more narrowly. In a context of a party that is most likely to come first in May’s European Parliament elections and appears to have been successful in forcing David Cameron’s European policy (in combination with Tory backbenchers), Conservative members might feel that they can’t afford to give any more ground to UKIP. Hence the Conservative Home poll is interesting in suggesting a very minimal vote-swap arrangement, amongst those in favour of a pact.
Thirdly, it shows how the question of a pact has swung around. Until now, pacts came as suggestions from UKIP, looking to get a foothold in Westminster. As an incumbent party, the Tories pushed that away. Now, the boot is on the other foot and Tories talk more of a pact as a means to co-opt UKIP and soften their electoral impact. All of which leads to the rather perverse situation where UKIP now has as good chance as ever of securing a pact, just as it might benefit most from not having one. The next 12 months will be pivotal for UKIP. With another ‘good’ election – and remember there are local elections too – under its belt, and with internal discipline as good as it’s ever been (i.e. not very, but certainly not as bad as at some points), UKIP will have the luxury of being able to demand a high price for its affections, backed up by a credible threat at the ballot box.
At the same time, it is precisely because of that electoral credibility that they might reject any advances, so that they can enter the Commons on their own terms, thus helped to maintain their profile as ‘outsiders’. Ultimately, this will all come down to UKIP’s leadership. The persistent rumours that Nigel Farage is prepared to exchange the party for a peerage might appear fanciful, but their mere existence suggests a certain level of dissatisfaction. Likewise, as recent events have shown, the leadership has a very limited capacity to get even senior figures to present an acceptable face to the public, let alone their rank and file. As such, there is a possibility that the party might undo itself before next March.
Which way this will go is impossible to say at this juncture, dependent as it is upon not only UKIP’s electoral fortunes but also the continuing battle within the Tories about the EU. What is certain is that the electoral pact issue will be with us for some time yet.
Note: This article was originally published on the PSA’s Insight blog and gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Image credit: Euro Realist Newsletter CC BY. Please read our comments policy before posting.
About the Author
Simon Usherwood is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Surrey. He is coordinator of theUACES Collaborative Research Network on Euroscepticism and co-author of The European Union: A Very Short Introduction (OUP 2013). He tweets @Usherwood.