Are UKIP a lost Tory tribe or masked villains? Cameron needs to decide

The Conservatives are caught between advertising their cultural affinity with UKIP and denouncing its members as closet extremists.

The Conservative Party needs to decide whether it thinks UKIP is a respectable outfit. (Other parties also need to make that choice but, in the run up to county council elections this week, it is the Tories who are feeling the most heat from a UKIP challenge.)

Broadly speaking, there seem to be two different approaches the Conservatives are taking to Nigel Farage’s insurgent rabble: they present them as a lost tribe or as masked villains.

The "lost tribe" hypothesis is set out with customary ebullience in a column by Boris Johnson in today’s Daily Telegraph.

According to this view, Farage and friends are really Tories who got lost on the way to the polling booth. They are capitalising on general contempt for politics and mid-term distaste for the incumbent administration that happens to be Conservative. The good news, Johnson argues, is that Ukip’s success is therefore misallocated vindication of Tory politics. The best response is a gentle cajoling of errant rightwing voters back towards the mother ship in time for a general election.

The "masked villain" hypothesis is that UKIP are a pernicious force; a sinister band of far-right nutters who have tricked or seduced sections of the electorate with lazy populism. This is the view implied by Ken Clarke’s attack on Farage’s outfit over the weekend as a "fringe party" of the right attracting "waifs and strays" as candidates.

Conservative headquarters has been looking at some of the people standing for UKIP in Thursday’s poll in the hope of exposing them as closet extremists. It turns out the party has picked up some former British National Party members and activists. UKIP's official line is that fascists are not welcome and that the Tories are smearing them. The natural riposte is that a party that cannot recognise a distinction between smear and scrutiny has something to hide.

There is some overlap in the lost tribe and masked bandit views. Both see UKIP voters as natural Tories. The difference is that the former woos them back by emphasising proximity, the latter by exposing difference. The lost tribe view says "we are all Tories really, why vote for the second rate imitation when you could have the real thing." The masked villain view says: "Look what lies behind the façade of respectability – behold the beast! recoil in horror!"

Both approaches have their hazards. The danger of the lost tribe approach is that it ignores or plays down the extremist element. If, for example, Boris Johnson believes Farage is really a Tory and that many UKIP types are really Conservatives, where does he file the more conspicuously bonkers element? Presumably Johnson doesn’t want to blur the boundary between ideological fellow travelers and the kind of person who blames Zionist bankers for the Holocaust? 

Meanwhile, the danger of the lost tribe hypothesis is that swing voters who already see Tories as a bit swivel-eyed and intolerant will find confirmation of that prejudice in the assertion that Faragism is the natural continuation of the Conservative spectrum. That vital constituency of people who in 2010 were not persuaded that David Cameron had brought his party to happy accommodation with the 21st Century are unlikely to have their minds changed in 2015 if they are told voting Tory is like voting UKIP-lite.

But then, the danger in the more aggressive anti-Farage approach is that it risks insulting that section of the electorate already flirting with Ukip. Trying to tug at the supposed mask in the hope of exposing something uglier beneath it only works if the hidden beast agrees to be noisily beastly for prolonged periods. The odd BNP member turning up as a council candidate embarrasses UKIP, but Farage himself simply isn’t a Nazi and no amount of sneaking up behind him and trying to pin swastikas on his back is going to change that. What’s more, Ukip like nothing more than to be able to say that the mainstream political and media establishment is closing ranks to attack them because it is afraid.

An unmasking strategy assumes a degree of moral authority on the part of the unmasker that voters don’t accept. When the Tories – or indeed Labour and Liberal Democrats – accuse UKIP of not being the respectable and credible organisation it pretends to be, they take as their benchmark of respectability and credibility a political settlement that, by definition, UKIP-leaning voters have rejected. People are drawn to UKIP out of anxiety, dismay and loathing of the more familiar parties. Why would they then turn to those parties for their professional guidance about what is and isn’t an appropriate receptacle for their protest?

The Tories can advertise their cultural affinity with UKIP and alienate voters who see Farage and friends as the very caricature of everything they rejected about Conservatism in its fly-blown descent from power through the mid-90s. Or they can attack UKIP as an ugly deception practised by closet extremists – an approach that risks insulting chunks of the core Tory vote. There is always the possibility that they end up doing both.   

Nigel Farage shows a mug that was presented to him before signing a book of condolence for Margaret Thatcher at the museum in Grantham. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Photo: Getty
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On Brexit, David Cameron knows exactly what he's doing

It's not a dead cat - it's about disarming the Leave campaign. 

If you’re explaining, you’re losing. That’s the calculation behind David Cameron’s latest entry into the In-Out (or Remain-Leave in new money) battle. The Prime Minister has warned that were Britain to leave the European Union, the migrant camp at Calais – popularly known as “the Jungle” – could move to Britain. But Eurosceptic campaigners have angrily denounced the remarks, saying that there’s little chance of it happening either way.  

Who’s right? My colleague Henry Zeffman has written a handy explainer of the ins and outs of the row, but the short version is: the Eurosceptic campaigners are broadly right.

But the remarks are very far from a gaffe by Downing Street or Cameron, and they aren’t a “dead cat” strategy – where you say something offensive, prompting a debate about that instead of another, trickier issue – either.

Campaigners for Remain have long been aware that immigration remains their glass jaw. The line wheeled out by Cameron has been long-planned. Late last year, senior members of the In campaign discussed what they saw as the danger points for the campaign. The first was a renegotiation that managed to roll back workplace rights, imperilling the support of the Labour party and the trade unions was one – happily avoided by Cameron’s piecemeal deal.

That the deal would be raked over in the press is not considered a risk point. Stronger In has long known that its path to victory does not run through a sympathetic media. The expectation has long been that even substantial concessions would doubtless have been denounced by the Mail, Telegraph and Sun – and no-one seriously expected that Cameron would emerge with a transformative deal. Since well before the general election, the Prime Minister has been gradually scaling back his demands. The aim has always been to secure as many concessions as possible in order to get an In vote – but Downing Street’s focus has always been on the “as possible” part rather than the “securing concessions” bit.

Today’s row isn’t about deflecting attention from a less-than-stellar deal, but about defanging another “risk point” for the In campaign: border control.

Campaign strategists believe they can throw the issue into neutral by casting doubt on Leave’s ability to control borders any better. One top aide said: “Our line is this: if we vote to leave, the border moves from Calais to Dover, it’s that simple.” They are also keen to make more of the fact that Norway has equally high levels of migration from the European Union as the United Kingdom. While In will never “own” the issue of immigration, they believe they can make the battle sufficiently murky that voters will turn to the areas that favour a Remain vote – national security, economic stability, and keeping people in their jobs.

What the row exposes, rather than a Prime Minister under pressure is a politician who knows exactly what he’s doing – and just how vulnerable the lack of a serious heavyweight at the top makes the Leave campaign(s). Most people won't make a judgement based on reading up the minutinae of European treaties, but on a "sniff test" of which side they think is more trustworthy. It's not a fight about the facts - it's a fight about who is more trusted by the public: David Cameron, or Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling or Priti Patel? As one minister said to me: "I like Priti, but the idea that she can go against the PM as far as voters are concerned is ridiculous. Most people haven't heard of her." 

Leave finds itself in a position uncomfortably like that of Labour in the run-up to the election: with Cameron able to paint himself as the only option guaranteeing stability, against a chaotic and muddled alternative. Without a politician, a business figure or even a prominent celebrity who can provide credibility on the level of the Prime Minister, any row about whether or not Brexit increases the chances of more migrants on Britain’s doorsteps helps Remain – and Cameron. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.