Last week Lynton Crosby and David Cameron briefed Conservative MPs on the threat posed by Ukip. Their timing was impeccable: today’s YouGov poll showing 19 per cent of Conservative members would seriously consider voting for Nigel Farage’s party could have sent Tory MPs into orbit, but instead they have been reassured that the party has a proper plan to deal with the enemies to the right, rather than the messy ‘fruitcake’ strategy of the past few years.
I am told by a number of MPs who were present that Crosby talked generally about what attracts people to Ukip, rather than the specific problem of next year’s European elections. This was based on polling the party has been carrying out. He told the meeting, which took place while the debate on James Wharton’s EU referendum bill continued, that there were three reasons Conservative voters were turning their backs on the party: immigration, welfare, and the economy. The last reason was the most important driver, but the European Union was not the top reason. It is of course a contributing factor to other problems, particularly immigration.
Crosby and the Prime Minister said they were confident that these voters were quite easy to win back because the party is making progress on all three fronts: the green shoots popping up all over the place on the economic front and progress cutting the deficit; the flagship welfare reforms (and the regular hints from the top of the party that it would go much further on welfare without the restraining influence of the Liberal Democrats); and net migration falling by a third. The meeting heard that the Prime Minister and his colleagues at the top of the party will focus on getting those achievements across to voters in as many ways as they possibly can in the next few months.
But Crosby also highlighted Ukip’s policy inconsistencies, and this will be another key line of attack for the Conservative party in the coming months. They have already tried to point out that while Ukip oppose HS2, their 2010 manifesto actually called for three high-speed rail lines. Another example to be deployed in the next few months will be road tolling, I hear. They want to be able to say that Ukip changes its mind like the wind or tides. Amusingly, Farage’s party appears to be bracing itself for this onslaught with a disclaimer on the 2010 manifesto page of the Ukip website:
Tory MPs who attended the meeting were already in a good mood: in the preceding 24 hours they had enjoyed a parliamentary party photo involving Michael Gove pretending to be Speaker Bercow and mocking Philip Hammond, a barbecue in Downing Street that was better attended than most Conservative events since 2010, a stirring performance from James Wharton in the Chamber and the growing implosion of the Labour party. But they were reassured not only that these Ukip-facing voters are not irreconcilable, but also that their party has a proper plan to win them back that doesn’t involve insults about fruitcakes. One said ‘I wish David Cameron had been given all of this two years ago’.
Some Tories in marginal seats where the real problem is Labour stood up and told their colleagues that Ukip was a red herring. But Crosby responded that this might be the case for them, but Ukip does present a real problem in other constituencies. He reassured the meeting that Labour has a soft vote, as well. His aim appeared to be to give MPs a frequently-asked-questions presentation on Ukip so that the leadership doesn’t need to keep answering the same questions over and over again at parliamentary party meetings.
Of course, it will need to return to the issue again, particularly as the European elections loom. Some MPs want a strategy that says the party won’t sweat the euros while focusing on a good, reassuring result in the locals taking place at the same time. But for the time being, Conservative MPs seem to have been very reassured and cheered by Friday’s meeting.