The Tories hit a record poll low as UKIP hits a record high

With Cameron's party on 27% and Farage's on 17%, the gap between them is now smaller than the gap between Labour and the Tories.

In the week since the local elections, the Tory party has appeared anything but calm in its response to the UKIP surge. MPs have demanded an early EU referendum to give David Cameron a "mandate" to renegotiate Britain's membership (a referendum on a referendum, in other words), Jacob Rees-Mogg has called for a full-blown coalition, with Nigel Farage as Deputy Prime Minister (presumably after he's gone to the trouble of actually winning a seat) and Cameron has hurriedly brought Nadine Dorries back into the Conservative fold after rumours that she was on the verge of defecting to the Farageists.

Unfortunately for the Tories, then, today's YouGov poll will do little to calm their nerves. It puts them on a record low of 27 per cent (their worst rating not just since the election, but ever) and UKIP on a record high of 17 per cent, with 25 per cent of 2010 Conservative voters (excluding don't knows and wouldn't votes) telling the pollster that they would vote for the purple peril. The gap between the Tories and UKIP - ten points - is now smaller than the gap between them and Labour - 11 points. Labour's rating of 38 per cent is it worst since February 2012 but the even smaller Conservative share means Miliband would still win a majority of 108 on a uniform swing.

For Cameron, the risk between now and the election is that such polls will prompt Tory MPs to begin forming their own pacts with UKIP. While Farage has consistently said that Cameron is an insurmountable obstacle to a national arrangement, he has long made it clear that he is willing to consider local deals. As he told the Spectator last May, "What I do know is there are Conservative Associations up and down the country who think this could be a way forward… So all I would say to you is that in terms of co-operation or deals or anything in the future, firstly it’s some way off but secondly, I can see that there are associations thinking along the lines that if they approach us. Would I entertain and contemplate such ideas? Of course I would."

A string of mini UKIP-Tory pacts would force Cameron to choose whether to disown the candidates in question (triggering a Conservative split) or be seen to give in to Farage. With UKIP likely to enjoy another surge after next year's European elections, the dilemma will not go away. While Farage's party will still be lucky to win even one MP in 2015, it has the potential to prevent the Tories winning many more. At the last general election, with a UKIP vote share of just 3 per cent, there were 20 constituencies in which the UKIP vote exceeded the Labour majority (one shouldn't make the error of assuming that all those who supported the party would have backed the Tories in its absence, but many would have done). If UKIP starts to look as if it could determine whether the Tories remain the single largest party (an overall majority, always unlikely, now looks impossible), then the pressure for a rapprochement of the right will become overwhelming.

David Cameron speaks at a press conference at the EU headquarters on February 8, 2013 in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.