November 30, 2012 6:39 pm

Tories must nix the idea of a Ukip pact

Internal contradictions would doom the relationship

He will not forgive the continental comparison but, in Nigel Farage, the UK has acquired its own Pierre Poujade. His UK Independence party, for all its soi-disant “libertarianism”, espouses the kind of populist creed that animated the mid-20th-century French demagogue. Both movements speak for people who feel discombobulated by social change and ignored by elites. Both count small business owners among their supporters but deplore many of the things that markets bring, such as immigration and the development of green land. Both see villainy abroad, with Ukip cursing the EU as the poujadistes denounced international finance. Mr Farage has some of the demotic flair that allowed Mr Poujade to sparkle against an ossified establishment. Even their surnames half-rhyme.

There are tentative signs of Ukip emulating some of the poujadistes’ old success. On Thursday, they finished runner-up in two parliamentary by-elections. They score as highly as 10 percentage points in national polls, edging out the Liberal Democrats. If they win in the European elections in 2014, a breakthrough in the following year’s general election at the cost of the Conservatives will seem inevitable. Like many insurgents, they are helped by the failure of the establishment they are trying to displace to even vaguely understand them. When social workers in Rotherham recently deprived a Ukip-supporting couple of their foster children on the grounds that their partisan affiliation denoted bigotry, the backlash was – entirely rightly – crushing. Populism is not racism.

But neither is it compatible with the serious governing conservatism that Prime Minister David Cameron aspires to. Some in his party are urging him to enter into an electoral pact with Ukip to prevent the rightwing vote from self-defeatingly splitting in 2015. Even many who stop short of that want the prime minister to appeal to Ukip voters by offering an in-out referendum on the EU, or by tilting right generally. They see Ukip’s existence as an unnatural fracture in the conservative tribe that can be easily healed if only the Tories make the first move.

But it is nothing of the sort. Ukip is a protest party. Taking on established brands such as the Tories is what it does. The party’s popularity is the latest manifestation of a trend that has been in the works for more than half a century – the migration of voters away from the two main parties. In the 1951 general election, 97 per cent of votes cast were either for Labour or the Conservatives. In 2010 only 65 per cent were. There is deep and broad disaffection with mainstream politics. Much of it is warranted, some of it is irrational, but most of it is unbiddable. The idea that Ukip voters will return to their “rightful” home if proffered a few ideological bones to chew on patronises them and trivialises this profound structural trend in electoral behaviour. It is also a tawdry way of making policy. There are good reasons to hold an in-out referendum – seeing off Ukip in swing seats is not one of them.

Of all the minority parties, Ukip is not even the most fertile quarry for the Conservatives. A recent ComRes poll found that only 18 per cent of Ukip voters would even consider voting Tory next time, compared with fully 31 per cent of Lib Dems. Seducing the former will almost certainly mean repelling the latter, for the two parties agree on almost nothing. The arithmetic makes it obvious which party Mr Cameron should cultivate.

Psephological reality alone should nix any temptation on the prime minister’s part to chase Ukip votes. But an even better reason is the ideological incompatibility of the two parties, something too many Tories try not to think about. There is a difference between the government’s mission to make the UK fit for a “global race” against dynamic economies elsewhere and the ideas propounded by Ukip.

The government is austere; Ukip wants to increase defence spending and double prison capacity while cutting taxes. The government is making it easier to build; Ukip’s planning policies make it harder. Mr Farage’s line on immigration makes the government’s foolish cap on numbers look like an open-door policy drafted by Davos Man. Ukip says that leaving the EU would allow the UK to thrive as a global economic hub but it opposes many of the things that are absolutely indispensable to fulfilling that role.

Like the poujadistes, Ukip is a quixotic chemical compound of left and right, which is why it wins votes in working-class Labour redoubts as well as the Home Counties. This is a perfectly respectable political proposition; the people who vote for it deserve representation as much as anyone else. But the notion that the Tories could in some way associate themselves with it is eccentric; internal contradictions would doom the relationship.

Ultimately, the zeal among some Conservatives for an accommodation with Mr Farage is interesting because of what it says about them, not about Ukip. Those on the Tory right want to believe there is a path to electoral glory that does not take in intellectual compromise. They see in Ukip the soothing antithesis of everything they have loathed in recent years, including not just coalition government but Mr Cameron. Flirting with Ukip is a chance for them to be themselves. But it is not, and never will be, a political strategy.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

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