More and more often I’m asked if I will defect to UKIP. I can understand why. I’m no admirer of David Cameron’s zig-zagging leadership of the Conservative Party. I support leaving the EU. I resent the way George Osborne span last week’s extra £850 million payment to the Brussels bureaucracy as some sort of victory. I share UKIP’s opposition to Britain’s futile but expensive climate change policies. I’ve also tried to understand the motivations of UKIP’s voters rather than shout them down as racists.
All of my experience suggests that the vast majority of Kippers are patriotic, decent Britons who worry about the direction of the country and are often victims of very tough economic circumstances. I admire many of UKIP’s leading lights, notably Douglas Carswell, Patrick O’Flynn and Steven Woolfe. I feel philosophically and temperamentally closer to them than some prominent members of my own party – Matthew Parris or Ken Clarke, for example. But I’m not going to leave the Conservative Party.
Although there’s more in UKIP that I like than I dislike (it’s largely a party of the centre right after all) I want to fight for the Conservatives to again become Britain’s dominant party – rooted in the centre right, a broad church and committed to a one nation politics. I may feel closer to Douglas Carswell than Matthew Parris; to Patrick O’Flynn rather than to Ken Clarke but the bigger truth is that I’m much closer to Dan Hannan than to Nigel Farage, to Owen Paterson rather than Diane James or to Iain Duncan Smith than to Mark Reckless.
Here are ten quick reasons why I won’t be joining UKIP:
A final thought. An eleventh reason. This particularly fractious time to be a Conservative won’t last. I feel – as many Tories do – that there is a cuckoo in the nest at present and he will be gone on either the day after the next election or a year or two afterwards. At some point in the not too distant future the party will have a leader more in tune with the mood of the Conservative voter and with the lower income, aspirational and patriotic voters that Margaret Thatcher and John Major successfully attracted. The unhappy chapter begun in December 2005 will close.
The Conservatives shouldn’t change their leader before the election, whatever happens in next Thursday’s Rochester and Strood by-election. It is not clear that there is any Tory in parliament who’d do a better job for the Conservative Party next May than David Cameron. Particularly because it is unlikely that a leadership election would be a coronation. It would probably be protracted and divisive. The Tories also have strong assets. The economy is growing. Jobs are being created. Crime is down. Welfare and schools are being reformed. Pensioners have been looked after. Only one party can deliver a referendum on Europe. These remain strong underpinnings of a re-election strategy. They’d not be enough against a strong Labour Party but they might be enough against a Labour Party led by Ed Miliband. He seemed to do enough yesterday to save his leadership.
Moreover, David Cameron is not a terrible conservative. He’s a little bit conservative in every respect. A little bit of a fiscal conservative. A little bit of a Eurosceptic. A little bit of a reformer. A little bit of a hawk on foreign policy. But, while such modest conservatism might have suited happier times, these are not happy times. The European Union of which we are already semi-detached members is failing economically and failing badly. Emerging markets, technological change and open borders are combining to depress the wages of the lowest-paid. Demographic change is distorting the budgets of ageing western electorates such that the British state now spends more than half of its budget on health, welfare and pensions. This is a time for boldness rather than for Cameronism.
Although I think he’s been a strategic amateur the Prime Minister is clearly a natural TV performer and super competent at many of the things a prime minister should be competent at – including at representing Britain at international gatherings and in Commons performances. I was very proud of his responses to the Hillsborough and Bloody Sunday reports. The trouble is that these qualities are less important than a common touch, consistency and skilled party management. The gatekeepers of Britain’s political culture put too much emphasis on the silky sophistication of a Cameron and not only don’t value the raw strategic consistency of a Tony Abbott and Stephen Harper or the folksy charm of a Ronald Reagan or John Key. Worse, they actually sneer at such qualities.
But change is coming. David Cameron may be gone within six months. If he wins the next election he’ll probably go by mid-term, perhaps sooner. Real change must then happen because, by its own objectives, Cameronism has failed. Failed to build Tory support in the north, in urban Britain or among ethnic minorities. Three key tasks will await Cameron’s successor, whoever he or she will be:
UKIP is partly the product of both lousy party management and strategy by the current Tory leadership. Its best members can teach the Conservative Party a few things but it is not the answer to Britain’s key challenges. The Conservatives might just limp over the finishing line at the next election under David Cameron’s leadership but fundamental change is still needed if the party is to win an election and, most importantly, deserve to win it.