Grant Shapps attacked Ukip and defectors at Conservative party conference today. Photo: Getty
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"He lied and he lied and he lied": how are the Tories tackling defections to Ukip?

The Tories need to play on the fact that Ukip is still not a credible party.

As your Party Chairman, I share your deep sense of betrayal and anger.

We have been let down by somebody who has repeatedly lied to his constituents, and to you:

Who said one thing, and then did another.

Last month, he looked us in the eye, and said only our Prime Minister could secure a say for the British people on Europe.

Last week, he insisted he would be campaigning for an outright Conservative victory.

Two days ago, he was busy leaving phone messages, claiming he was enthusiastic about joining us to campaign for Rachel Maclean here in Birmingham today.

He lied and he lied and he lied.

This is what the Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps told Tory party conference in his speech this afternoon. He was referring to the actions of Mark Reckless MP, the erstwhile Tory MP who announced his defection to Ukip at its conference yesterday.

Shapps has set the tone for his party’s conference this week by coming down hard on the Tory defector. The leadership is willing to address defections, but is not wavering in its narrative about returning to Downing Street in 2015 – and with a majority this time.

One key part of the Tories’ political counter to Ukip is to emphasise that it is a credible party, whereas Ukip is not. Reckless, when he jumped ship, suggested to Ukip conference that he was joining its party because he sees it as a credible option for Britain’s future. But the Tories should really play hard on the fact that Ukip – though it gave the appearance of a buoyant party on the up during the first of its annual conferences that the media has taken (somewhat) seriously – is still a mess when it comes to a consistent message.

There are many examples of Ukip U-turns that show the party still hasn’t organised itself, in spite if its growing popularity. Today, Steve Crowther, Ukip’s executive chair, told John Pienaar on Radio 5 Live that its manifesto at the last election was “extremely broad and well-worked”, whereas the party leader Nigel Farage has famously dismissed it as “drivel”.

Another recent example is from this Friday, when Suzanne Evans, Ukip’s deputy chairman, seemed to change her position on airstrikes against Islamic State in a matter of seconds, having been told Farage opposes them. She had previously expressed her support for them. A story is now developing about whether Farage is at odds with his party on this matter.

Then there is the matter of Ukip’s policies. Announcements at their conference show a wholesale departure from its previous plans. For example, its enthusiasm for a flat tax has been undermined by a range of complex taxes mooted at its conference, which are intended to appeal to “blue-collar” voters. Then there’s the NHS, in which Ukip is now championing investment, in spite of Farage commenting in January: “Only UKIP dares cut spending on NHS and pensions.” There is also a new insistence that the party will not be privatising the health service, something that was not in their narrative before.

These are just a few cases of the flip-flopping Ukip has been doing on its rise to prominence, and is a clear sign of a party going for the “all things to all men” tactic. This won’t always wash, however, if it continues to revel in smugly snatching Tory personnel for itself. Labour’s attack line against Ukip, “More Tory than the Tories”, becomes increasingly convincing the more Ukip embraces Conservative defectors. Ukip’s U-turns to more palatable policies for working-class voters won’t be able to overshadow this.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.