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Stuart Wheeler is heading for Las Vegas. The multimillionaire businessman is taking a week off from his duties raising money for Ukip to compete in the world poker championships. He doesn’t expect to win, he tells me over dinner at a sleek restaurant in west London. He plays for the fun of it.
For Wheeler to be a committed gambler while remaining very rich suggests a wellcalibrated feel for risk. But when it comes to politics, as with professional poker, he is a dabbler. He broke records by making the single largest donation ever to a UK party when he gave £5m to the Conservatives for their 2001 general election campaign, although he says he wasn’t much involved before then. “I didn’t become interested in politics until I was already an old man, in 2000. I was 65.”
Most of Wheeler’s life has been spent in business. He qualified as a barrister after graduating from Oxford but promptly moved into the City. Much of his fortune was made developing systems for spread betting on commodities. (Gambling is a persistent feature in his biography.) “My really close old friends are not politicians,” he tells me. “I’m interested in it, and it’s not my whole life.”
His voice is jovial and plummy, his complexion vivid pink under snow-white hair. He would be the very portrait of a Tory grandee, except he was expelled from the party in 2009 after donating £100,000 to Ukip. “It was quite reasonable of them to expel me,” says Wheeler. I detect disappointment but no rancour.
Ukip has a complex relationship with the Conservative Party: the antagonism laced with dependency that a rebellious teenager might feel towards a dismayed parent. While the newer party’s leadership insists it appeals across the political spectrum, much of its apparatus is staffed with Tory defectors – and it is disillusioned Tories whom Wheeler taps for donations.
“When I’m trying to raise money for Ukip the objection I get frequently is: ‘Well, you’re quite right, we ought to be out of the EU, and you’re quite right that [David] Cameron is being rather pathetic, but we can’t support you because you’ll let Labour in.’”
This is the line that Tory MPs say is most effective with their local activists – vote Farage, get Miliband. The system Wheeler has developed for overcoming this objection is to promise that money will be cordoned off in a special account for use only in the European elections in May 2014, thus allowing Tory donors to exert maximum pressure on Cameron next year without feeling treasonous come the 2015 general election. Do Tory donors take that deal? “Not all of them, some of them.” The maximum donation that can be made without a public declaration is £7,500, which means that “there are quite a few people who donate exactly £7,500”.
There is now an assumption around Westminster that Ukip will do very well in next May’s European poll, and could quite possibly win the highest share of the national vote. It says something about the surge in support that the party feels the need to manage expectations downwards. “I’m getting slightly nervous,” Wheeler says, “because people seem to be so confident we’ll win, it will almost look like a failure if we don’t.”
The other subject of Wheeler’s solicitude is Ukip’s dependency on Nigel Farage. The party’s recent growth is largely attributable to the efforts of its leader, who relentlessly hawks his plain-speaking affability around TV studios and public meetings. The frenetic pace is taking its toll. “Now we’re much bigger, he’s got to change a bit and allow other people to do some of it,” argues Wheeler. “Partly so he doesn’t get exhausted, although he’s got more energy than anyone I’ve ever met, and also we don’t want to be painted as a one-man band.”
Wheeler says that the rest of the Ukip high command are “bullying” Farage into taking things easier, dropping perhaps a quarter of his media appearances and concentrating more on building party structures and developing policy. “He’s got to have some time to do other things leaders have to do. He’ll drive himself into the ground if he’s not careful.”
The reliance on Farage’s personality expresses a curious contradiction about Ukip. The leader is a well-spoken, public-schooleducated former stockbroker. Wheeler is an Old Etonian. He lives in a Jacobean castle in Kent with his wife, the photographer Tessa Codrington. One of their three daughters, the model Jacquetta Wheeler, had her wedding photographs in Vogue.
It is a pedigree that does not sit obviously with the party’s depiction as a kind of anti-Westminster, anti-establishment, commonman insurgency. Does Wheeler feel the disparity? He is baffled by the question, choosing instead to address the related, but different charge that Ukip is a vehicle for protest votes.
“It’s not just protest. We genuinely think we should be out of the EU and genuinely think we should cut immigration.” There follows an exposition of party policy towards foreigners, encapsulated in the peroration: “If you want to come and live here, you’re very sensible because it’s a nice place but sorry, we’re full, and over the next five years, with very few exceptions – I can’t even remember what they are – you can’t.”
Is it not worrying when that message attracts extreme elements? Ukip may not see itself as a racist party, but there are racists and far-right ideologues who vote for the party and join it. “Commentators, journalists and so on regard us as far . . .” – here Wheeler stops himself – “. . . as right-wing, but our voters, I’m told, don’t think that at all. Some think we’re left-wing.”
Really? In what way? “I don’t know, to be honest. But we’re going flat out – I suppose I’m changing the subject here – over the next six months for a Labour vote. We think we can do well in Labour areas.”
This is the strategic point that he wants to get into the conversation, although the digression is executed with a crunching of gears. Ukip is keen to show that it is not just a renegade army of excommunicated Tories, but an autonomous party that might one day end up in government. Yet Wheeler is realistic about what can be achieved at the next general election. “It’s perfectly possible we’ll get no seats in a Westminster election at all. It’s also possible we’ll get a few . . . but look what happened to the Scottish Nationalists. They got a few seats and suddenly they’re in control in Scotland.”
Yet, for all the talk of spanning the political spectrum, Wheeler embodies the strain of Ukip feeling that is essentially the outraged anti-Cameron Tory party-in-exile. The Conservatives would love to have him back. “I go to a lot of events and very often there’s a Conservative minister speaking and they’re always very polite and say, ‘Oh, we’ve got to get you back in the fold,’ and all that kind of thing. I don’t think it’s very likely.”
The official Ukip line is that there is no truck to be had with the Tories while David Cameron is in charge. Wheeler dismisses the Prime Minister as someone who lacks vision and whose “main objective is to live in 10 Downing Street”.
So who does he rate in the Tory party? Liam Fox, whom Wheeler backed in the 2005 leadership contest, gets an honourable mention. So does Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, who is the most outspoken Eurosceptic in the cabinet. He likes David Davis (but describes him as “probably on the way down”) and, “at the other end of the spectrum”, Jesse Norman, the MP who organised the rebellion against House of Lords reform. Norman, I note, is sometimes spoken of as a future Conservative leader. Wheeler ponders, then agrees. “Yes, yes . . . I’d have thought he was a possible leader.”
The name that always comes up in this kind of political dinner-table speculation – and by this stage we are on coffee and dessert – is Boris Johnson. Wheeler is a fan. “He’s a very possible alternative leader. He does flipflop a bit about the EU but he’s very bright.”
So, could the Mayor of London take vital votes back from Ukip? “I think that’s right. And maybe not only Ukip . . . I think he probably would do quite a good job, actually. But it’s difficult to know – as prime minister, I mean. As for winning the vote, he’d do a good job there.”
Ukip’s fortunes, it seems, are closely pegged to Cameron’s leadership of the Tories, because he inspires a particular animus among disaffected Conservatives – including some MPs. One of Wheeler’s functions has been discreetly dining with potential defectors. There has been interest but no deals have been closed. He is sworn to secrecy on the identities of those who have taken up his dinner invitations but that doesn’t preclude naming dream candidates. One is Douglas Carswell, the MP for Clacton, who is a vocal advocate of Britain leaving the EU. “We’d love Douglas Carswell to defect. Or Dan Han - nan [a fiercely Eurosceptic Tory MEP]. Those are two very good ones.”
Why, I wonder, when these people seem such a natural fit with Ukip, have they not made the leap? “Even in Douglas Carswell’s case, he might lose his seat if he defected to us, and in Dan Hannan’s case, I don’t know,” Wheeler muses. “He must be thinking about it all the time.”
Though there is no doubting the disorientating effect Ukip has had on the Tories, there is also a feeling around Westminster that the mood has stabilised and that, with the exception of a few irreconcilable troublemakers, Conservative MPs are passing through a loyal phase. Cameron’s promise of an EU referendum and his support for a symbolic backbench bill in parliament reaffirming that pledge have soothed Tory nerves. Is it possible, I ask Wheeler, that the Prime Minister’s strategy of renegotiating the terms of EU membership and putting the result to a referendum might in fact be quite popular?
“Oh yes. Well, there are two very different kinds of Eurosceptic attitudes. One is ours: we say it’s ridiculous to renegotiate if you plainly won’t get anything . . . the others, who are probably almost as keen to get out as we are, say we should renegotiate. They say the reason is that it might get some very substantial changes, which would make it worth staying in, but I think possibly that’s not the real position. The real attitude is: let’s get out and the best way to get out is to show that renegotiation is useless and that we can’t get anything. And then voters will be much more inclined to vote to come out. And I understand that point of view.”
He suggests this strategy of ushering the public to the EU exit with a charade of seeking concessions is what motivates not only Tory MPs but senior figures in Business for Britain, a group of business leaders calling for the return of powers from Brussels. It is quite an allegation. Does he know that’s what they think? “They don’t put it that way.”
Sometimes Wheeler remembers that Ukip has evolved beyond demanding only that Britain quit the EU. He points me to polling by Michael Ashcroft, another disappointed Tory financier, that mined the attitudes of Ukip voters and found them far more preoccupied with immigration, crime and general contempt for politics.
And yet, when Wheeler talks about those other topics, his dilettantish side is most on show. As we discuss welfare he seems not to recognise the term “universal credit” (the government’s flagship policy in the area). On other areas of social policy he demurs, saying he has views but they are not Ukip policy. When we talk about the economy he reminds me often that he is not an economist. Even when I ask him about the Labour Party and Ed Miliband, he concedes that his knowledge base is thin.
“I’d say that question brings out the point that there’s a lot in common with the Conservatives that we have.” For all that Ukip’s officially declared strategy is to stand equidistant from Labour and the Tories – mopping up the disaffected voters of each – I sense that at a deep institutional and cultural level the party is a prodigal son of the Conservative family. When Wheeler considers the prospects of a Tory majority at the next election, it is not through the eyes of an ideological enemy but as a semi-professional gambler.
“Last time I looked, the bookmakers were laying 4-1 against that. Actually, I think that’s too much. I think they’re unlikely to do it, but I don’t think it’s 4-1.”
It sounds as if he might yet be persuaded to take a punt on his old party.