If the Conservatives’ UKIP problem looks bad now, wait until 2014
Open Europe's Christopher Howarth has the following article published on Conservativehome:
UKIP have done well in the local elections, securing almost 13% of the vote, in the places where they stood, and caused real problems for the Conservative Party. It might be tempting for the Conservative leadership to retreat into Downing Street, curl up in their well-beingness zone and ignore this local squall, or still worse, insult those former Conservatives who decided to vote UKIP. This would be a serious mistake as events are conspiring to create a perfect UKIP storm going into the 2014 Euro elections just before the (now fixed) 2015 general election.
Firstly, before I explain further, I do not believe that the Coalition’s actions on Europe are the whole, or even a major explanation of UKIP’s good showing. Not all UKIP voters are former Conservatives and even if they were, not all would return – when is a protest no longer a protest? Europe is not the only issue that motivates people to vote UKIP. Perceptions that the Conservative Party does not share voter’s concerns on immigration, law and order, has a Maoist fascination for unwanted and damaging constitutional change (such as House of Lords reform), as well as an air (hopefully temporary) of incompetence all play their part. However Europe remains an issue and cannot be ignored. This is why:
There will be a European election in 2014. Last time (in 2009) UKIP came second with 16.5% of the vote, in 2014 they could do a lot better providing momentum going into the general election. In 2009 the Conservatives had a coherent European narrative (based on a Lisbon referendum) and although they chose to focus on domestic issues it was in line with majoritarian British thinking. In 2014 the Conservatives are unlikely to have a clear narrative.
In 2014 we will still be seeing the after effects of the euro-crisis (or worse) which may be perceived to have caused further direct costs to the UK taxpayer in the form of further IMF contributions.
In 2014 the UK will have to decide whether to opt in to EU jurisdiction over 130 EU police and Justice measures, including the EU arrest warrant, or leave them completely with the Liberal Democrats potentially fighting hard to stay in.
In 2014 we will see a major House of Commons Parliamentary vote on ratifying the EU’s seven year budgetary framework, which on past performance could see a rise or a freeze but not a cut. Voting it through would be unpopular when the UK is facing tax hikes as well as some cuts.
In 2014 the EU will implement a provision of the Lisbon Treaty changing the EU’s voting system meaning the UK could be out voted by the Eurozone acting as a caucus, with severe implications for the UK’s financial and social regulation. All manner of unpopular measures could appear in the meantime.
And all this with a General Election set in stone for 2015
So what can be done by the Conservatives to retake the initiative?
This is obviously difficult in a Coalition context but there are things that can be done. The Conservatives could set out distinctive policies, based around getting powers back from the EU that would in due course go into their manifesto. The Conservatives could set out a vision for the UK in a flexible Europe, post the eurozone crisis, based on the UK remaining outside the euro - President Klaus of the Czech Republic has recently set out something similar. The UK should say now that they will exercise their block opt-out over EU police and justice matters so it is not left hanging or reduced by 2014. The UK should also set out innovative ideas to shrink and radically reform the EU budget (Open Europe has suggested this on agricultural spending and this on EU structural funds). The UK could also consider unilaterally adopting a minimalist approach when implementing some of the worst aspects of EU regulation obviously aimed at Britain, such as the Agency Workers Directive and aspects of financial regulation.
Finally the Conservatives and the UK should show they understand the modern world by renewing its focus on economic liberalisation, securing the benefits of the single market while seeking out opportunities in high growth emerging markets – the two are not mutually exclusive. With these measures, the Conservatives could set out a narrative that would not please all, but would be in line with public opinion.