Fruitcake fringe poses problems for Cameron

Until yesterday’s arrest of a senior Conservative MP on rape charges, the big story in Britain this week had been the local government elections on Thursday. I’ve never put a great deal of store in those elections; as I explained a few years ago (in a story that seems to have disappeared from the Crikey website):

Commentators like them, but commentators like anything that they can pontificate about. Their actual predictive power in the past has been weak: at the last round, in 2004, Labour did extremely badly, but those results were not borne out [2005’s] general election. Moreover, because it is not the same councils that vote each time – outside of London, most of those voting this year last voted in 2002 – making comparisons across time is difficult.  . . .

Intrinsically, these elections are no more important than local elections in Australia: local government in both countries has few important powers. But for national implications, they are more analogous to a state election, or even two or three state elections held on the same day. In other words, not without value in identifying what’s happening at the national level, but to be used only with great care.

At certain levels, however, perception becomes reality. If the political class, desperate for guidance of some sort, thinks these elections are important, then they are.

Most councils vote on a four-year cycle, so this week’s results should be compared with 2009, which was a particularly bad year for Labour. Sure enough, the Tories lost ground this year, but Labour didn’t pick up much: most of the difference went to the UK Independence Party, which had its best-ever result and is now clearly the country’s third most popular party, outpolling the Liberal Democrats by wide margins.

Prime minister David Cameron had previously referred to UKIP as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”; now he is valiantly trying to reassure those who voted for them that their concerns are legitimate. It’s not an impossible balancing act – you can show respect for voters while vehemently criticising the party they’ve temporarily been lured into voting for – but it’s intrinsically difficult, and it’s made harder for Cameron by the fact that many of his colleagues are obviously closer to UKIP’s views than they are to his.

I said two months ago that UKIP is “a very typically northern European far-right party. Not a traditionalist, neo-fascist party (…), but a party that pays lip service to liberal economics and even ‘libertarian’ values while being fanatically anti-immigrant.” That means it’s in direct competition with the Conservative Party, giving it just the same sort of headache that Pauline Hanson’s One Nation gave to the Queensland Nationals.

It’s a lose-lose situation: standing up for moderation and sanity risks further bleeding from your right wing, but moving to embrace the extremists just gives them credibility and repels voters in the centre.

Cameron’s real problem is not UKIP itself but the depth of anti-European and generally anti-modern feeling in the Tory Party. If he was going to take a firm stand against Euroscepticism he should have done it a long time ago; most probably he judged that had he done so he would have either split the party or lost his job. Instead he has made regular gestures to appease the far right without giving way to them on the essentials.

As a strategy, it’s not working at all well. But it’s hard to see that he has any better alternatives.

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