It is morally wrong that five independent fee-paying schools should send more students to Oxbridge than the worst performing two thousand secondary schools combined. Agreed. The increasing ebb and flow of people across our planet is one of the greatest issues of our time. Yes. On the major issues of the day – immigration, the economy, our health service and living standards – the establishment parties have repeatedly and knowingly raised the expectation of the public, only to let us down, time and time again. Yes, broadly speaking. The IMF’s statement yesterday, to the effect that the fiscal projections in Osborne’s most recent budget are unlikely to be met, shows that they’re still at it. The Government continues to signal its intention to widen engagement in international conflict while, at the same time, implementing a crippling round of further military spending cuts. Yes. To help protect the enduring legacy of the motor industry and our classic and historic vehicles, Ukip will exempt vehicles over 25 years old from vehicle excise duty. That gives it away – all this is from Ukip’s manifesto. If the whole manifesto were like that last proposal, all lounge-bar populism and talk of political correctness gone mad, Ukip would be a less disruptive force in British politics.
Beneath its increasingly well-funded, electorally successful veneer, Ukip is an organisation with no substantial programme and little by way of a propositional politics. That may not be a problem for a party that collects 3.1 per cent of the popular vote in a general election, as Ukip did in 2010, but it is for a party that has just had its first MP elected and is riding at 25 per cent in opinion polls.
The Conservatives are largely responsible for their present plight. Ukip may profess contempt for the Tory Party, but it is one of its products. The Conservative leadership and its press supporters always believed, like many right-wing toffs in the past, that they could control any insurgency their political tactics might evoke. For the last few years the Tory Party and its cheerleaders in the Mail, the Sun, the Express and (a little more decorously) the Telegraph have cultivated a populist rhetoric – xenophobic, anti-European, anti-trade union, anti-welfare – as extreme as anything we have known. And they have assumed that such rhetoric could be managed for the benefit only of the ruling circles within the party. But for several years it has been clear – not least to David Cameron – that this assumption is wrong.
The odds show Labour still favourite to beat Ukip in the Heywood and Middleton by-election on Thursday, but that we’re even talking about it being contested is significant, given that the constituency I grew up in has been solid Labour for half a century. Polls show Labour comfortably ahead, but Ukip increasing its vote tenfold to 31 per cent. On a trip home the other weekend, I didn’t see many posters in windows and turnout will be low.
A poll at the weekend gave the Tory defector and Ukip candidate Douglas Carswell a 44-point lead in the Clacton by-election. He looks set to become Ukip’s first ever MP on Thursday. One of the first people I saw as I came out of Clacton-on-Sea train station on Saturday was carrying a Douglas Carswell poster. He said his name was Tristan, and he’d just been at the Ukip campaign office with his son. He’d never voted before but was backing Carswell because of Ukip’s stance on immigration. He thought that David Cameron’s weak policies on immigration were to blame for the state of the country.
The European elections in France have produced an ‘earthquake’ outcome, according to the new prime minister Manuel Valls, who stepped in after the recent municipal vote gave the Parti Socialiste the drubbing it deserved. Nine weeks later here’s another humiliation, despite President Hollande’s efforts to assure the French they’re heading for terra firma. Turns out there’s no such thing: the whole continent, according to Valls, is trembling in the aftermath; he clearly thinks the epicentre was somewhere in France, perhaps the Front National headquarters in Nanterre, where Marine Le Pen and her party broke out the champagne on Sunday night. The results: 25 per cent of the vote to the Front National, and 25 MEPs; 21 per cent to the right-wing UMP and 20 MEPs; 14 per cent for the Parti Socialiste and its campaign partner the Parti Radical de Gauche, which equals 13 MEPs. Where I live – a moderate, steady-eddie electorate – the FN came in on top with 30 per cent of the vote, followed by the UMP. Well behind both came the Union de la Gauche.
Ukip’s ‘Carnival of Colour’, which took place in a Croydon shopping centre today, never looked particularly promising. When I got there, a few supporters wearing linen suits, loud shirts and strong aftershave were handing out flyers. George Konstantinidis, the east counties regional chairman of Ukip, gave me his card. I asked him if Nigel Farage would be there. He told me, conspiratorially, that he’d be arriving in half an hour. I asked him if he thought Farage was racist. He said he wasn’t.
It is fascinating to find as spokesman for Ukip a Leopold David Verney, 21st Baron Willoughby de Broke (creation 1491). His grandfather, the 19th baron, Richard Greville Verney, also held vivid views. He talked of 'fighting Irish Home Rule to a finish' if it couldn't be done in a general election. In a letter of 1913 to the Duke of Bedford, who favoured military training for the upper and upper-midddle classes, he wrote: 'I don't think it would be prudent of me to speak in favour of arming the classes against the masses. I am strongly in favour of so doing, I quite admit.'
Once anti-immigration sentiment has turned nasty, it’s hard to look back and say with any certainty whether government cast the first stone. Enoch Powell. and his party were in opposition at the time of his ‘rivers of blood’ speech in Birmingham in 1968: the problem, as the member for Wolverhampton South West saw it, was Wilson’s Race Relations Bill. Running for office, David Cameron talked tough on immigration. In coalition he could have smashed the soapbox, put it out for recycling and hoped for the best. But he's had to deal with the self-destruction of the Tory Party and the good fortunes of Ukip, which is up its backside like a jalapeño suppository. Pained and jumpy, the government has been playing the immigration card as though it were in opposition, using the public purse to work up feeling on all sides of the debate.
For the next period, debate over the UK’s relations with Europe, and UK politics generally, will be dominated by Ukip. Because of but also despite Nigel Farage’s persona – about one part Jeremy Clarkson to two parts Mr Toad – the purple people won big in last week’s local elections, and can now enjoy watching the Tories rip out each other’s gizzards in a political version of the Eton wall game. As the general election’s witching hour draws near, the Tory undead have started to rise, stakes uprooted from their hollow chests. Jacob Rees-Mogg has called for an electoral pact with Ukip. From his Telegraph column Lord Tebbit tacks as close to endorsing Ukip as any Tory can who wants not to be blown out of the party. Now Nigel Lawson, dad of the more famous Nigella, has become the first major Conservative to announce that if David Cameron manages to hold his promised referendum on EU membership around 2017, he’ll vote for the trapdoor.
By-elections seldom mean that much. The idea that they matter a lot is an illusion jointly propagated by party hacks, to whom they do matter a lot, and press hacks, whose job is to make them look as if they matter. Party candidates, ventriloquised by their minders, are egged on to terrorise hapless local voters with the prospective death of Nato or the EU, communist invasion, or droves of dark immigrants if they stick their cross in the wrong box. Journos generally play ball. They roll out their watersheds, such as the 1962 Orpington by-election, ‘credited’ with springing the old Liberal Party from the morgue gurney (and, one might add, much good that’s done us).
Is Britain going to ‘leave Europe’? The phrase has a slightly absurd ring, as if UK politicians could speed up continental drift and deposit the country somewhere off Massachusetts. In fact, the Atlanticist Europhobes in the Tory party and UKIP had been swatted even before the prime minister made his ‘defining’ speech on Europe, as Obama’s people made clear that the president had told Cameron he wants Britain to stay in. No matter. UKIP is on a roll and Cameron’s running scared. A Sun poll had the purple party on 11 per cent in November, which could do all manner of damage to Cameron’s re-election chances, even though the Liberal Democrat vote sits like a chocolate rabbit on a radiator, waiting for the heating to come on, and the Conservatives stand to benefit most from their partners’ meltdown.
The organisers of the ‘Rally Against Debt’ on Saturday made a lot of promises. On their website the event was described as ‘a great networking opportunity’. There were to be ‘a fair share of journalists’ so any attendee stood ‘a good chance of getting your face out there'. The rally would give voice to the ‘silent majority'. Comparisons were made with the Tea Party movement. The organisers were pitching to an inexperienced protesting crowd. The website provided tips on how to make a placard, along with a selection of recommended slogans: ‘I understand economics’; ‘Stop reckless politicians spending our money’; ‘Mind the fiscal gap.' I didn't fancy getting my face out there, but was curious to see what kind of support a pro-cuts demo could muster.