No wonder Tory ministers are off-message: not even Cameron knows what the message should be

The Prime Minister has never come up with an intellectually sustainable explanation of the economic crisis.

David Cameron campaigns during the Eastleigh by-election. Photograph: Getty Images.

Would the UK Independence Party shut up shop if it achieved its goal of pulling Britain out of the European Union? Plainly not. Liberation from Imperial Brussels is the struggle that gave the party its name, but there is no end of suspected foreign mischief to sustain Nigel Farage’s partisan brigades in permanent cultural insurgency.

In reality, enterprising migrants create jobs, boost growth and claim proportionately few benefits. But Ukip has an ambiguous relationship with reality. It feeds on reasonable anxiety provoked by social and economic upheaval. It turns nostalgia for lost certainties into rage at the expropriation of indigenous entitlements. It comforts by denying theneed to adapt to the times, selling instead self-righteous victimhood at the hands of foreigners, bureaucrats, the metropolitan elite, proselytising homosexuals.

Fear and blame are vast resources at a time of economic crisis but it is a duty of mature, democratic politicians not to exploit them. That doesn’t stop the Conservatives from trying. In the aftermath of the Eastleigh byelection, in which Ukip pushed the Tories into third place, ministers have been lashing out at familiar foes. Iain Duncan Smith found himself anguished afresh at the scourge of “benefit tourism”. Meanwhile, Theresa May and Chris Grayling remembered their horror at the European Convention on Human Rights and their determination one day to prise it out of British law.

I doubt many Eastleigh voters went into polling booths wishing parliament would be more blasé about torture. It is true that the Ukip complex sees human rights as a European affectation in conflict with the common sense of Old Albion, but it does Conservatives no favours to be nurturing that view. The Human Rights Act will not be scrapped in this parliament. Whitehall lawyers, reasonable Tories and the Liberal Democrats will not permit it.

The only effect of the Grayling and May interventions is to tease grass-roots Tories with something they want but can’t have as long as David Cameron is in Downing Street – an invitation to continue supporting Ukip as the Real Conservatives in Exile.

Cameron’s response to the by-election humiliation was a promise not to “lurch to the right”. The mixed message cannot have been co-ordinated. The No 10 communications operation is often criticised for lacking consistency but no one thinks it is so incompetent as to launch a two-pronged attack with the prongs facing in opposite directions. The better explanation is that Cameron is losing control of ministers much as he lost control of his backbench MPs.

Some of the more moderate voices around the Prime Minister have long been frustrated with May’s clunky illiberalism, especially where immigration policy is concerned. There are ministers and aides who recognise that a policy of snarling hostility to foreigners harms Britain’s reputation as a country open for business to the rest of the world. It does nothing to advance the UK’s position in the “global race”, which is supposed to be Cameron’s governing purpose. For now.

Tory MPs don’t anticipate the global race selling any better on the doorstep than “the big society”, which was the Conservative leader’s unwavering ambition before he wavered. Yet there is a deeper problem with the theme, which is that the Tory account of Britain’s economic plight, as set out before the 2010 election, was the opposite of global. It was insular and parochial. Cameron explained with lethal simplicity how Labour had spent all the money – maxed out the credit card – and how only national belt-tightening could lead to recovery. He and George Osborne are now learning that international forces determine whether the UK economy grows or shrinks. Their problem is that a message crafted out of that insight sounds like a lame excuse for failure – the very charge that was levelled against Gordon Brown when he talked about a global crisis.

It is an error of category and chronology to see Cameron’s dilemma after Eastleigh as a choice between holding a centre course or lurching to the right. The lurch was already made back in 2008, when the Tory leadership failed to grasp what was happening in the financial meltdown and reached for glib answers that obscured the truth. They didn’t see it then as a crisis of globalised market capitalism and have never come up with an intellectually sustainable explanation of what else it might have been.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise when malfunction in an internationalist, liberal system produces illiberal, populist backlash.

There is a cultural nuance and presentational sophistication to Ukip that allows it to reach beyond the old skinhead model of the far right, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t ultimately a nationalist party, committed to the politics of pulling up the drawbridge, vilifying outsiders and purging enemies within.

Before the crisis, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories were all supporters of the elite, cosmopolitan, pro-globalisation consensus; their leaders voiced no reservations about the model until it failed. Owning up to that error and developing a plausible alternative is a slow and difficult process for any politician who wants to govern responsibly. For those who don’t, there is a quicker and easier route. It involves peddling simple solutions based on prejudice and fear. Cameron insists that the Tories aren’t in that trade; all the evidence says otherwise.