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.