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A bad press for Farage doesn't automatically help the Tories

Conservatives are desperate for Ukip to falter but they may be underestimating the stubborness of the anti-politics vote.

Nigel Farage
Ukip leader Nigel Farage. Source: Getty

It cannot do Nigel Farage good to have his character and finances queried on the front page of the Times for a second consecutive day. The question is how much harm it does. Some Ukip supporters will be receptive to the party’s line of rebuttal, which is that the whole thing is a smear by agents of the Tory party disguised as journalists. After all, wouldn’t it be just like the Establishment to use its house journal to attack the leader of anti-Establishment resistance?

That defence has the virtue of consistency with Ukip’s wider message, but it also comes across as cranky. The list that the party published yesterday of links between senior figures at the Times and the Conservative party is in the idiom of conspiracy theory website. The same technique, applied with a little more imagination, could probably be used to demonstrate that Times journalists are connected to 9/11 and Mossad.

Clearly, Ukip doesn’t enjoy being treated like other political parties, which is to be expected from a party that touts itself as the antidote to politics. Less clear is how resilient Farage is to such treatment. There is a certain kind of populist swagger that is immune to bad news. Scandal, gaffe and embarrassment bounce off the likes of Boris Johnson and Silvio Berlusconi (in his hey day). Perhaps the Ukip leader is made of similar non-stick stuff?

The Tories hope not. The party has a notional plan for clawing back support from Ukip but there isn’t much evidence yet that it works. The method is to remind Farageist voters over and over again that the kinds of things they like – a tougher immigration policy; a referendum on leaving the EU; benefit crackdowns – can only be delivered in practice by a Conservative administration. A ballot cast for Ukip only nourishes the Europhile Ed Miliband. Some errant Tories can be wooed back to Cameron’s camp with this argument but not, I suspect, as many as the party’s strategists hope.

The mistake that some Conservatives make is in thinking that Ukip, being a relatively new party, commands tenuous loyalty. In this view, the smaller the body in the political firmament, the weaker its gravitational pull; so if a giant, such as the Tory party, moves in close, voters are dragged into its orbit. This is the traditional arrogance of the ancient party towards parvenu challengers and recedent suggests it is misplaced. The presumption that voters have nowhere else to go is usually wrong, as Labour has found in many of its former seats now held by Liberal Democrats; also in Bradford (Respect); in Brighton (Green) and, above all, in Scotland, where the demise of the Tories accompanied a surge in Nationalist support.

The tidy Labour-Conservative duopoly has been slowly unravelling since the 1950s. There remain strains of ancestral allegiance in the electorate. There are families where the political stripes of Blue or Red are worn tribally, like football colours. But that trend is in decline. Anyone who has interrogated voting intentions on the street – whether during the various by-elections of this parliament or at other times – will testify to high levels of contempt for politics in general and the more familiar parties in particular. One such recent conversation stuck in my mind. On a trip to Cambridge I got into a conversation about politics with a woman – early 30s, with young children – who had voted Lib Dem in 2010. The reason: “They had never been in before.” That attachment had since been shed. The current intention was to not vote at all or to support Ukip, because “they’ll shut the gates.”

Anecdote is a poor instrument in political forecasting but the episode was instructive as a reminder that people do not follow the laws of uniform swing that party strategists want them to obey. I have had numerous similar conversations: a Muslim taxi driver from Slough who is voting Ukip because the newer class of immigrant is giving the more established immigrant communities a bad name; a nurse in Manchester who is voting Ukip in protest against government cuts, the bedroom tax and high energy bills. (Miliband’s campaigning on those issues was discounted because Labour “caused all of the problems.”)

Voting intentions are rarely set by comparing a list of personal policy preferences with a party’s menu of promises and plumping for the best match. The Tory strategy for winning support back from Ukip presumes people have some flowchart in their heads that chases specific aims and arrives at the conclusion that returning a Tory MP is the most efficient way to see those aims realised. But what if one of the overriding aims is not to support the Tories? What if the function of voting is not to choose the government, because governing parties - “they” - are all the same, but rather to express a preference for none of “them”?

In that case, the exposure of Farage as a charlatan, or just another politician, will not be sufficient to steer voters back to more mainstream candidates. It is a fallacy to think that all Ukip supporters are the lost sheep of Labour or Conservative parties who have gone wandering mid-term and can be rounded up in time for a general election. It is also a mistake to try telling them they are Tories and just haven’t noticed it yet. Some MPs have realised this and wonder whether the penny has dropped in No10. “The leadership is terrified of Farage and doesn’t really have a clue what to do about him,” one young backbencher recently told me. Another prominent Conservative warns that anger against Cameron and the political elite is entrenched enough that even a rising economic tide will not wash it away: “It can’t be bought off with an improvement in living conditions.” (A view the same source describes as “deeply seditious” in terms of the official party narrative.)

If Ukip loses its anti-Establishment allure, there is no guarantee that its votes will seep back to the old parties. Farage didn’t create the anti-politics mood in the country, nor does he own it. Meanwhile, David Cameron hopes that voters who doubt Ed Miliband is up to being Prime Minister will come to realise that the Tories are the only credible option on the ballot paper. He may be disappointed. The lesson of recent history – in by-elections; general elections; local elections; European elections – is that large swathes of the British public really don’t need much encouragement to vote something other than Conservative.