Pagefield’s Oliver Foster reports on the last seven days in politics
It’s a tired phrase – “a week is a long time in politics” – but sadly it’s so often true. Just over a week ago, if aliens had invaded, they couldn’t have been criticised for believing that the man they had to overthrow was Nigel, not Dave. Press reports of UKIP’s surge started well before results came in from the local elections and it is only now that we all seem to have sobered up from the mad rush to the pub to drown our sorrows at the prospect of UKIP holding the balance of power in 2015. With the opinion polls in the state that they are – with UKIP hovering around 17% – clearly anything is possible, but with apparent popularity comes more exposure. And with more exposure comes more scrutiny. And with more scrutiny come more potential holes in which to fall, and the prospect of watching UKIP’pers struggling to answer the serious questions – the ones that matter most to the electorate – is truly tantalising.
But the mistake that many are on the verge of making is to treat UKIP supporters in the same way as UKIP politicians. It’s certainly wrong to talk about “clowns”, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the next two years show every sign of resembling a circus. If UKIP can’t even ensure its own candidates are vetted, how can it dare to hope to put each of its manifesto policies through the kind of scrutiny that is required of a mainstream political party before a General Election? Yet, its supporters are far from clowns – they are from the mainstream of the British electorate who we know from focus groups are utterly disillusioned with the three other parties and who hold firm views on some of the biggest issues of the day.
The Queen’s Speech has been hailed as a sop to UKIP. There’s no doubt an element of truth in this if Lynton Crosby has had anything to do with it. But these things are months in the making and the more telling background to it is the private polling that’s being conducted by the three main parties, some of which has shown the British electorate to be in a properly foul mood right now. Hostility to the EU, ECHR (for those who know what it is), immigration and over-generous welfare are at all-time highs – and rising. This is proper recession politics and one that the main political parties seem still to struggle with – and this kind of private polling so often taps into people’s “real” beliefs far better than the more public polling which can feel too uncomfortable for people to answer 100% honestly.
Perhaps the most telling private poll result of all: 60%+ support for the Government’s austerity policy (balance the books, cut down the national debt, etc) until you tell voters that this is exactly what George Osborne’s policy is about – when public support halves to barely 30%. 91% support more controls on immigration, 82% say that welfare reforms don’t go far enough, and 59% saying they would vote no in a referendum about UK membership of the EU. Sure, these are all core areas of UKIP’s successful campaigning. But the scale of these figures suggests that it’s the electorate itself that is setting the agenda for the next General Election, not any particular political party. 2015 is no 1997. New Labour came to power after years of studiously reshaping the entire political landscape and the key battlegrounds in British politics. UKIP has been attempting this, but they are nowhere near becoming a byword for “change”. And for that matter, neither is Labour under Ed Miliband.
From the outside looking in, there can be no doubt that No.10 can’t be a happy place to be right now – the latest YouGov poll puts Tory support at its lowest since YouGov actually started polling. But from inside the British political tent, surrounded as they are by all sorts of political acrobats, jugglers and stunt artists, this kind of private polling might just be providing the Conservative leadership with several crumbs of comfort. If they stick to their guns – and so long as the economy doesn’t fall off the already difficult tightrope it is navigating – ringmaster Crosby (alongside Cameron, Osborne, and Gilbert) could actually start to get the show back on the road. In the last week, the Tories have been heartened by the fact that the areas in which they have 80 target seats – and therefore the best campaigning machinery in place – were the best-performing areas for them in the local elections, against any of the other parties. They’ve campaigned hard in these areas for 18 months, and it’s starting to pay off. Their worst results came in those areas where they remain complacent.
Labour are holding on to their core vote, but they are far from ready for a proper public debate on policy and their local election results were equally far from even their modest expectations; the Liberal Democrats are disillusioned with coalition responsibilities and no longer benefit (positively) from the protest voter; whilst UKIP are going to be found wanting in terms of policy detail and public confidence in them as national leaders in key economic and social issues.
The 2015 election is currently too close to call. But what is certain is that whoever ends up becoming Prime Minister – whether of a coalition Government or not – will be justified in seeing himself as the Houdini of British politics.