Farage's hint of a pact with the Tories is a sign of weakness

If Ukip could find enough half-decent candidates the party wouldn't be angling to share with the Con

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. 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.