Ukip leader Nigel Farage speaks to a journalist in Rochester on November 21, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The Tories have ruled out a deal with Ukip - and they're right to do so

The Conservatives are right to deny the toxic suggestion that they would shack up with Farage. 

Conservative chairman Grant Shapps's speech this morning was designed to put the spotlight on "30 days of Labour chaos". But it is his comments on Ukip that have attracted most attention. Asked whether he could rule out a coalition with the party in the event of a hung parliament, he replied: "I can rule out - We are not going to do pacts and deals with Ukip".  Shapps's unambiguous response contrasts with David Cameron's equivocation earlier this month ("I don’t want pacts or deals with anybody," was his carefully worded response). But Conservative sources have confirmed that this was not a slip of the tongue: they really are ruling out any arrangement with Ukip (be it a coalition or a confidence and supply agreement). 

For several reasons, they are right to do so. First, the earlier refusal to rule out a deal with Ukip had the potential to inflict further damage on an already tarnished Conservative brand. While support for Nigel Farage's party has surged since 2010 (when it polled just three per cent), it remains toxic to many voters, not least those the Tories need to win over if they are ever to win a majority again. Polling has consistently shown, for instance, that ethnic minority voters - just 16 per cent of whom voted Conservative in 2010 -  have an understandably negative view of Ukip. YouGov last year found that a quarter of current Conservative supporters wouldn’t vote for the party if it entered a pact with Ukip, with 5 per cent switching to Labour, 4 per cent to the Lib Dems and 16 per cent abstaining. In the seats that the Tories gained from Labour and the Lib Dems in 2010, and those they need to gain in 2015, the prospect of a Tory-Ukip deal threatened to repel centrist and liberal voters. 

Second, the Tories have recently derided Labour over its refusal to rule out a deal with the SNP, seeking to portray Ed Miliband as "weak" and "desperate". It is far harder to level these charges if Labour can reply in turn that Cameron is preparing to shack up with Farage. The rejection of a pact enhances the rhetorical boast that the Tories are unremittingly focused on winning a majority. 

Finally, the chance of Ukip holding the balance of power in a hung parliament is smaller than often implied. Even if it makes five gains (a credible result), the party will still have significantly fewer MPs than the Lib Dems and the SNP (who stand to make far greater gains), and perhaps fewer than the DUP.

The cost of not ruling out a deal with Ukip is almost certainly greater than the cost of doing so. The Tories are right to have spoken with conviction today. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496