2015 election countdown: will Ukip really sink the Tories?
Tory optimists have been sustained by the belief that Ukip will fade: but polls suggest that won't happen
Ukip provided a very convenient tick-box for protest voters wishing to register their displeasure with mainstream politicians in May's local and European elections. But surely the Nigel Farage Show has run its course?
Wrong. Perhaps very wrong.
Recent polling ordered by Lord Ashcroft, the former Conservative party treasurer who now gets his kicks commissioning expensive, detailed polling in marginal Westminster seats, suggests Ukip is far from being a spent force. Indeed, it might fairly easily win at least two seats in May 2015 – Thurrock and South Thanet, the latter likely to be taken by Farage himself.
Some believe Ukip could do better than two seats – raising the possibility of Ukip holding power in a hung parliament and - who knows? - even being invited into a Tory–Ukip coalition.
That's all a very long way off – but it's hardly surprising the Telegraph was quoting "senior Conservatives" at the weekend saying that "winning back a significant number of today's Ukip supporters is a strategic priority".
Which explains David Cameron's new crackdown on EU immigration. The coalition, he promises, will introduce new laws to halve the amount of time EU immigrants can claim out-of-work benefits, from six months to three.
He made other promises too, including a pledge to do something about the little-known system – news to most of us, I suspect - whereby all vacancies advertised at Job Centres across the UK are also automatically offered to workers in EU member states who might fancy coming to Britain.
Cameron's promises were wrapped up in suitably Ukip-esque sentiment about putting "Britain first" and ensuring that the UK is no longer seen as a "soft touch". As the Telegraph itself says - in the understatement of the week - "Mr Cameron’s latest intervention on immigration will be seen as an attempt to woo back Conservative voters who have defected to Ukip in recent months".
If only it were that simple. Ukip has no intention, it seems, of giving up its members to such unsubtle "wooing": instead it hopes to exploit the Lib Dems' miserably low standing in public affection and become the alternative force at Westminster.
There are three Ukip myths that have sustained those Conservatives who believe that, with the economy growing and everyone making fun of Ed Miliband, everything will turn out fine come May 2015:
Myth No 1: That the Lib Dems will get finally their act together while Ukip slumps.
This assumption comes from the "That's just the way it works" school of political thinking. And it appears to be totally wrong. Recent polling shows no sign of a Lib Dem revival. Serious political commentators regularly write the party off as "washed up" and "at rock bottom". Equally, Ukip shows every sign of its support holding up: analysis by Ukip-watcher Robert Ford of the Ashcroft marginal constituency polls shows that, in 13 out of 14 such seats, Ukip support has actually gone UP since last spring when Farage was enjoying maximum publicity.
Myth No 2: That Ukip aren't strong enough at the local party level to win seats.
This is where Ukip have really surprised their doubters by picking up the old Lib Dem playbook – the one that says the only way for a third party to get ahead in our first-past-the-post political system is to worry less about national support and focus instead on a small number of seats where the demographics as well as political traditions give you a chance of victory. Robert Ford explains that these seats feature large concentrations of the older, white, working-class "left behind" voters – both old Labour and old Tory - he has identified as "the core Ukip constituency". Ukip has achieved its increase in support (see above) through the "grunt work" of licking envelopes and knocking on doors. In Thurrock, for example, 31 per cent of voters say they've been contacted by Ukip, as against 25 per cent by Labour and 26 per cent by the incumbent Conservatives. As Ford puts it, the "supposedly disorganised insurgents" are beating both main parties in "the vital constituency street fight".
Myth No 3: That Labour and the Tories will suffer equally if the Ukip surge holds up.
Analysis of Lord Ashcroft's polling by the Political Betting website shows that far more of Ukip's support comes from former Tories (31 per cent) than former Labour voters (18 per cent). What that means is that if Ukip support were to fade - either of its own volition or because of new Conservative temptations like today's curbs on welfare payouts for immigrants - then the Tories would get the biggest boost. But given all the above – Ukip's better "street-fighting" organisation, the rising support, the strong will to win – the Tories look set to be the big losers. Hence Labour's claim, reported by the Telegraph on Monday, that "Ukip voters will make Ed Miliband Prime Minister".
That, needless to say, is the last result Ukip members would want – about as popular as joining the Tories in coalition was with the majority of Lib Dem supporters.
Also, it means that it's in Labour's interest for Ukip to succeed. And so there's no need for Labour to "woo" Ukip voters – which is another good reason for Labour to make no promises about an EU in/out referendum.
Which, in turn, means that if you want to be sure Britain stays in Europe, vote Labour. But that's another story.