UKIP’s Euro win – why the Tories might be Smiling Inside

Since UKIP’s election success over the past week, much has been made of the Conservatives’ failure to “shoot the UKIP fox” after William Hague announced their promise, back in January, to hold an in-out EU Referendum following a re-negotiation of membership terms.

The Andrew Marr Show

The policy has clearly, thus far, failed to achieve that goal. But it had two other goals, one of which it has achieved – silencing Tory back benchers – and one of which it has yet to be judged on – the re-negotiation itself.

And the prospects for any such re-negotiation are now looking rather brighter.

When Nick Clegg debated Nigel Farage in March, I was struck by the polarity of the opinions expressed on the EU immigration issue.

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Farage said the “open door” immigration policy was deeply damaging to the British working class, while Clegg’s response was simply to say that “pulling up the drawbridge” was not the answer and that to leave the EU would be more damaging to the UK than remaining.

Both of these struck me as perfectly sensible points of view, but what cried out to me, was that the way to the public’s hearts and votes, must surely be to find a way of throwing out the bath water without the baby.

At no point did Clegg address (or have the LibDems addressed since) Farage’s point on Euro immigration. Is the LDs’ view that Farage is simply wrong about the effects Freedom of Movement has on the working class? Or it their view that Farage may be right but it’s a price worth paying since in their view the overall net effect of EU immigration is positive? I don’t know.

Only yesterday we saw LibDems suggesting that their failure to address the Freedom of Movement question may have been a mistake.  But in fairness, Labour have been equally silent on that question, and so, perhaps more surprisingly, had the Tories. Until last week.

Many Tories certainly agree with Farage that Freedom of Movement is a problem, but they routinely clam up when pressed on what they can do about it. Indeed they often look (rightly) embarrassed, when confronted with the absurdity of their 2010 manifesto pledge to reduce net immigration below 100k, which is simply not possible without changing the EU rules.

If the Tories were expecting to renegotiate Freedom of Movement to the UK in 2017, you’d expect them to have trumpeted that from the rooftops in the EU election campaign. I certainly never thought it would be on the agenda in 2017, as it’s a cornerstone policy of the Union. Surely there’s no way Cameron could make any headway on that issue?

So I was very surprised during Friday’s “Vote 2014″programme on the BBC, to hear Sajid Javid, the new Culture Secretary, not only openly agreeing that the “open door” EU immigration policy was a problem, but also saying that EU immigration was indeed one of the policies which David Cameron would be seeking to renegotiate when the time comes.

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Despite the political ‘earthquake’ caused by UKIP, Javid’s comment was my political “moment of the week”.

If that really is the Tories’ plan, why did nobody say so during the EU election campaign? Surely that is the “middle ground” option that would have appealed to voters? Perhaps they are privately hoping to achieve something on immigration during the renegotiations, but don’t want to trumpet it because they think their chance of success are slim.

Or perhaps, just perhaps, senior Tories might be rather happier with UKIP’s Euro election win than they’re letting on. After all, the stronger the Euro-sceptic vote, the better Cameron’s playing hand when it comes to renegotiation, and if Brussels sees a real risk of an ‘out’ vote in a subsequent referendum, who knows what could be on the table?

Of course, all of this pre-supposes that David Cameron will still be Prime Minster this time next year, which given the Tories’ current position in the polls, would seem very optimistic.

Until you picture the only alternative.

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On Monday Ed Miliband was still insisting that a key issue behind UKIP win was – you’ve guessed it – the cost of living crisis. Right now he looks more likely to be skating home from work with Beelzebub next June, than enjoying a ride back to No. 10 in the Prime Ministerial Jaguar.

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Time for ‘Hero’ Clegg to make the Supreme Sacrifice?

Nick Clegg has been a great leader for the LibDems.

He’s made the LDs a party of Government, he conducts himself as Deputy PM with all the statesmanlike qualities one would expect, and still manages, week after week, to emerge with credit from a public phone-in he volunteers for. He regularly schools Harriet Harman at Deputy PMQs (no great achievement, some would say, but if you’ll forgive the sporting expression, you can only beat what’s put in front of you). And he’s steered his party through tough waters to a term of Government which I suspect – if the economic recovery continues – will come to be regarded by historians as one of the more successful of the modern era.

Nick-Clegg

So this may seem an extraordinary thing for me to say, but I think he’s going to have to step down.

Not right now, but some time before the next election.

Jackie Porter, one of three 2015 Parliamentary candidates to have broken ranks and called for Clegg’s resignation recently, summed it up perfectly in a BBC interview on the weekend.  She said Clegg should step down, not because she thinks he deserves it (she doesn’t) but because she’s finally given up hope that the public’s mind will be changed about the LDs, in time for the 2015 election. In essence, she says “the voters are wrong, but we can’t change their mind”.

Jackie Porter

Porter wants to win that Winchester seat, she’s given up hope of that happening unless something changes, and she thinks a last throw of the dice is required, to try to change the current public perception of her party as the Tory-enablers.

And, like many others, she believes that the only thing they haven’t tried is a change of leader.

Actually, I think there is another thing they haven’t tried, as I suggested in my video blog back in February. The LDs should pummel the electorate with the point that there would almost certainly now be an outright Tory Government had they not joined the Coalition in 2010. Tim Farron was putting that case again on Friday in the aftermath of the local elections, but he remains a lone voice in the wilderness. I’ve never once heard Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander, Vince Cable or even Paddy Ashdown making that argument.  If they stopped talking about their policy achievements in Government (which seemed a sensible enough party line, but it clearly hasn’t worked) and started making headway with my (& Farron’s) argument, who knows? It might work. But Farron aside, the LibDem machine clearly isn’t interested in pursuing that line of defence.

Tim Farron

As I said in the video, I believe there are three reasons for the collapse in the LibDem vote, and none of those reasons has anything to do with Nick Clegg himself. So personally, I think a change of leader is unlikely to help them. But I may be wrong, and since I don’t think it can do them any serious harm (their poll ratings can’t get any worse) it’s a fairly low risk strategy. So why not give it a try?

I feel desperately sorry for Clegg. I think he’s one of the country’s best politicians right now, and I rarely fail to be impressed by him, in interviews, in Deputy PMQs, in the debates against Farage, and every week on LBC. But I am not your average voter.

In his 6½ years as party leader, Nick Clegg made just one serious mistake – that being during the 2010 election campaign. Pledging, as a party, to freeze student fees would have been fine. Perhaps not terribly realistic, but fine. After all, as the junior partner in Coalition, the LDs would always have had to abandon many of their manifesto commitments.

But in a committee room somewhere, someone decided to go a step further, and took what was possibly the worst campaign decision ever made by a political party. Not considering Coalition Government as a serious prospect, they put MPs in front of the cameras, holding up placards in which they personally pledged to vote against any increase in fees.

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A few months later, LibDem MPs had to break that promise, and it has lost them the trust of the voters for the foreseeable future. It was a terrible, terrible campaign error, laying bare the LDs inexperience of Government.

Try as they might, I don’t think the LibDems are going to recover from that, certainly not in time for the 2015 election. Clegg must have signed off on that decision and perhaps, for that alone, I suppose you could argue that he should go.

But if he does go, and the party’s ratings don’t improve, the LDs had better prime themselves for some painful in-fighting next summer.

And in those circumstances, I suspect Nick Clegg will become a LibDem hero for many years to come.

Either way, I somehow doubt we’ll have seen the last of him.

 

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UKIP is the real indicator of “out of touch” Westminster

Judging by Ed Miliband’s attempt to down-play his weekly grocery costs on “Good Morning Britain” this week, our politicians still seem worried that they’re seen as “out of touch”  with the real lives of the average British voter.

It’s a charge which is probably as old as Westminster itself, but it’s become more common in recent years. Perhaps because there’s no true left-wing party to represent the working people of Britain any more, while of course the expenses scandal, the banking collapse, and multi-millionaires telling the unemployed that “we’re all in this together” haven’t helped much either.

But if you ask me, the clearest example of the disconnect between the political class and the average British voter, has been on view in these past 5 or 6 weeks. The total misapprehension in Westminster, of the public’s feelings, has been all too obvious during the media attacks on UKIP.

It’s not the surge in UKIP’s popularity, but the reaction to it, by the Westminster media bubble and to a lesser extent the politicians themselves, which is the most remarkable aspect of this whole affair.

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My twitter feed is jam packed full of political commentators falling over themselves to have a go at UKIP. I don’t think I follow anyone who tweets in their favour.  Of course, most of the criticism is perfectly fair, I confess I’ve joined in once or twice – after all, when you read that one of their election candidates is calling for innocent people to be executed, it’s hard not to laugh along with everyone else.

But sadly the Westminster Twittersphere is simply preaching to the converted. The average voter just isn’t listening.

Clegg and Farage TV debate

You’d have thought we might have twigged that, after the first TV Euro debate, when Nick Clegg was almost universally hailed as the hands-down winner over Nigel Farage, for around 15 minutes, until the public vote was revealed, to our collective bemusement.

So who are these millions of UKIP voters? The truth is, I don’t really know. And if you’re the kind of person who looks at political blogs online, I suspect you don’t really know either. Not one of my politically enlightened friends supports UKIP, at least, if they do, they’ve never admitted it. All my friends consider their policies, at best, excessive, and at worst, racist.

The problem is, you see, I don’t really know many ordinary people. And if I don’t, you can be pretty sure that the average commentator in Westminster doesn’t either. It’s not just the posh boys in the cabinet who don’t know the price of milk.

But the uncomfortable truth, is that these “ordinary voters ” whose lives we don’t understand, make up the vast majority of the electorate, and millions of them are going to vote for UKIP next week.

Nick Clegg, to be fair, was brave enough to debate Farage on the merits. But he lost that debate – in the public’s eyes – because he has no answer to UKIP’s central argument, one with which many voters strongly agree – that the “open door” immigration policy was fine while it applied to Spain, Germany and France because they had equivalent living standards to our own, but opening the doors to the poorer European countries is bad for Britain, and in particular, for Britain’s working class. A class which, funnily enough,  tends to be under-represented on twitter.

For a solid month now we’ve seen UKIP under ferocious attack from the media, one embarrassing story after another, whether it’s racism, homophobia, fiddled expenses, you name it, they’ve done it – and most of these people are UKIP poster boys & girls or actual election candidates. Almost on a daily basis, we’re getting a new story about the genuinely appalling behaviour of some of these people. And all the while, the twitterati have been absolutely destroying them.

And what’s happened? Their poll ratings have gone up. Not by much, but in the last month, they’ve gone up.

Time and again, I’ve read tweets predicting a collapse in the UKIP vote once the public sees them for what they really are. Particularly this week, tweeters are on the edge of their seats, praying that Farage’s total collapse in last week’s LBC interview with James O’Brien, will result in some kind of voter backlash.

But if you really think that, with respect, I’m not sure you understand the British public.

Here’s Nigel Farage, in ebullient mood, on Question Time a couple of weeks ago, defending his “foreign language on the bus” remarks – exactly the kind of remarks, let’s not forget, for which he’s now being villified, from all sides of the political spectrum.

What I’d ask you to note, is not Farage’s comment, but the audience reaction. Unsolicited applause from a fairly large section of the audience.

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Now, I hesitate to say this about the Question Time audience, given the abuse I shout at them most Thursday evenings from the confines of my own home, but I think it’s fair to say that a willingness to even watch, let alone take part in, a political debate of that kind, marks these people out as representing, at the very least, an average cross-section of voter intelligence and acumen. Probably well above average.  These aren’t your BNP following racist thugs. And yet a large section of the audience applauded those comments from Nigel Farage.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage

So if you think that villifying Farage for those comments about Romanians moving in next door, is going to turn voters away from UKIP, I’m afraid you could be deluding yourself.

Westminster needs to stop kidding itself into thinking that UKIP is only thriving because the British voters don’t understand their policies. The voters do understand their central policy, and at least a quarter of the voters agree with it.

Far from putting voters off UKIP, these racist taunts are, if anything, reinforcing a belief that the political class (which in the public’s eye means the three main parties and their media stooges) just want to shut down the debate.

The vast majority of these people certainly don’t consider themselves racist, and no politician is going to win their votes by telling them that they are. And right now, a lot of politicians are coming very, very close to doing just that.

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