Nigel Farage is proving to be a very effective nuisance to the Conservative leadership. His latest bit of mischief is to revive in an interview with the Spectator, the idea of joint Ukip/Tory candidacies. This notion crops up from time to time and is quickly buried in an avalanche of scorn rolling down from the top of the Conservative party.
But as the Speccie’s James Forsyth points out, there is a growing number of Tory MPs who are finding it hard to mobilise a campaign on the ground when some of their activists and local association stalwarts have defected. The problem for Downing Street is that the segment of the electorate being haggled over here overlaps all too awkwardly with the group from whom Cameron energetically tried to distance himself as part of his “modernisation” of the party in opposition. In other words, wooing them back implies a repudiation of his entire political agenda. Tricky.
Tory strategists recognise that a conspicuous bid for Ukip voters would be electoral suicide. Andrew Cooper, Downing Street’s in-house pollster, is said to be the most consistent and influential voice urging Cameron not to go down that path. The important thing for the Conservatives to remember is that Farage’s angling for a pact of some kind is a sign of weakness not strength. He can disrupt the Tories by provoking their visceral hostility to the European Union and prodding other nerves along the way. What he cannot do is field a bunch of credible candidates to be MPs. Ukip’s strong performance in European elections (where huge numbers of sensible voters stay at home, privileging the turnout for fanatics) has produced some fairly dodgy MEPs.
I have heard one senior Ukip official admit privately that the party’s biggest problem was that it became a magnet for “people who have failed in everything else in life and have an axe to grind”.
If Farage could muster a serious electoral battalion, surely an effective, dynamic, ambitious character like Dan Hannan would have defected by now. Wisely, he stays with the Tories hoping they will eventually swallow up the Ukip tendency (just as softer, liberal Tories hope the party can swallow up the Lib Dems). I am told Hannan is watched very carefully in Number 10 and not without some trepidation. He is seen as a useful indicator of feelings and loyalties in a certain quarter of the party.
The pressure on Cameron to give some concession on Europe keeps growing. As I wrote recently, the promise of some kind of referendum in the next manifesto is seen by most Tory MPs as the minimum required to buy loyalty and a semblance of unity. Ukip’s antics may be a sign of weakness; the question is whether Cameron is strong enough to ignore them.