Cameron's UKIP headache is self-inflicted

The fringe party of Eurosceptics could become big enough to prevent a Tory majority in 2015.

If the normally reliable Tim Montgomerie is right then several Tory MPs are on the verge of defecting to Nigel Farage's UKIP. Although UKIP has never come close to winning a Westminster seat, and boasts just one MP defector - Bob Spink - since its formation in the late 1990s, it's not a surprise that a handful of euro-obsessed Tory MPs are thinking about defection. More serious for the Tories is UKIP's emergence as a viable challenger to the Lib Dems in national elections. The party has been consistently polling between 7-10 per cent in the last few months which, while almost certainly not enough to win a seat in the Commons, is more than enough to deny the Tories a handful of marginal constituencies and, potentially, a Commons majority.

Just as George Galloway’s upset victory in Bradford should shake any complacency in Labour that they will be the automatic beneficiaries of rising public anger against government and the political class, the Tories cannot afford to dismiss of UKIP out of hand. It’s actually not hard to see why UKIP carries appeal. Nigel Farage is a witty and fluent speaker and he speaks to an old-fashioned breed of reactionary nationalism combined with social and fiscal conservatism which can still be found in conservative clubs and associations up and down the country.

Meanwhile, with the EU facing an almost existential crisis over the future of the single currency and most countries either in recession or on the brink, it is a great time to be a Eurosceptic. Indeed, the performances of Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Melanchon in France have shown that anti-establishment parties of the extreme-right and hard-left carry plenty of appeal to voters fed up with a political establishment that has landed them with debts, deficits and austerity-driven recession. With the Lib Dems having given up their status as a protest vote party by nailing their colours to the Tory, UKIP has plenty of fertile ground at its disposal.

Outside European elections, where UKIP can campaign on its raison d’etre and pick up eurosceptic votes from all of the three main parties, its vote share poses a lot more threat to the Tories than Labour or the Lib Dems. Indeed, around 60 per cent of UKIP voters are disaffected Tories. In 1997 a number of Tory MPs fell to small majorities where the Referendum Party candidate got more votes than the majority and in 2005, as well, UKIP votes cost the Tories a handful of seats.

Although they are now well-placed to pick up protest votes, the truth is that UKIP is the product of the Conservative party's unhealthy obsession with the EU which, nearly twenty years after Maastricht, is still no closer to being resolved. There is very little difference between Farage and the Tory Maastricht rebels of the early 1990s, or even Jimmy Goldsmith's Referendum Party which took 3 oer cent of the vote at the 1997 election.

David Cameron is also the perfect Tory leader for UKIP. Having won the party leadership in 2005 with the support of many Eurosceptics after having promised to take the Tories out of the European People's Party - the party group for centre-right parties across Europe - he has attempted the impossible task of placating both ardent Eurosceptics and moderates. Hence, Cameron opposed the Lisbon Treaty but ruled out tearing it up and re-negotiating and has made no serious attempt to win any opt-outs or derogations. In coalition with the pro-European Lib Dems his balancing act is even tougher and the bizarre ‘non-veto' at the December EU summit achieved the double whammy of upsetting the Lib Dems and, when they realised that Cameron hadn't actually blocked or won anything, the Tory back-benches.

Cameron’s insoluble problem is that his Eurosceptics will be disappointed by anything less than British withdrawal from the EU or, at the very least, radical re-negotiation of Britain's membership. The chances of EU withdrawal are zero and, having burnt most of his remaining political bridges at the December summit, there is no virtually no chance of other European leaders agreeing to re-negotiation. All of which is manna from heaven to UKIP.

The main problem that UKIP face – and which is the reason why, outside of the European elections, the party has little prospect of a breakthrough - is a lack of money and activists. With around 15,000 members across the UK and no big donors they simply don't have the cash or shoe-leather to contest more than a handful of seats. Moreover, like most fringe parties they are a one-man band, which is just as well because aside from Farage there is very little talent in their ranks.

The other benefit of being small is a lack of scrutiny. With no chance of ever winning seats outside the European Parliament, its party policy and politicians are little known and little discussed. Since two of the 12 UKIP MEPs elected in 2004 have since been jailed for fraud and the party continues to be dogged by allegations of racism, sexism and homophobia, this is no bad thing for UKIP.

But while they may be small, UKIP deserve to be taken seriously. They outpolled Labour and the Lib Dems in the last European elections and, while the euro crisis continues, they have every chance of beating the Tories in 2014. Domestically, they pose a small but deceptively serious problem for the Tories – not big enough to win seats for themselves, but certainly big enough to sink the prospects of a Tory majority. Frustratingly for the Tories, the rise of UKIP is almost entirely self-inflicted.

Benjamin Fox is political adviser to the Socialist and Democrat group in the European Parliament

UKIP leader and MEP Nigel Farage. Photograph: Getty Images
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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue