UKIP should not be written off as a protest party in the European elections, former deputy leader David Campbell Bannerman tells Paul Nizinskyj, as more MEPs means more cash to fund a Westminster campaign – scuppering any chance of Britain finally having a referendum on the EU.
David Campbell Bannerman is a member of one of the fastest growing clubs in the country – ex UKIP members. Like many, he was also formerly a Conservative, leaving the fold in 2004 over what he saw as the party’s weak position on Europe. For many of us in those days, and particularly for the first half of David Cameron’s leadership, flirting with UKIP was ever a temptation. I would challenge any Tory eurosceptic to deny they never voted for the party at a European election, for example.
But while most of us were content to make Cameron’s Conservatives jealous with the odd adulterous glance or fondle, David Campbell Bannerman was one of the few who went the whole hog and filed divorce proceedings and doing rather well out of it – becoming an MEP and his new party’s deputy leader. But, like many an adulterous relationship, the lustre soon wore off and after years of working at the rotten core of UKIP to little avail, Campbell Bannerman said he realised he had made a mistake, defecting back to the Tories in 2011.
As with many former members, a number things were paramount in their decision to leave – the party’s almost fanatical amateurism, the idleness of its MEPs and the tyranny of Nigel Farage. “Will Gilpin resigned in disgust last year when he tried to professionalise the party and was replaced by Neil Hamilton. That’s Nigel at work again and it was the same sort of thing back then.
“He was going bananas when were talking about getting Patrick Moore supporting us – it was all to do with ‘this is my party, these are my people, how dare you challenge me.’ I was even condemned for being too much like David Cameron at times. Most people would see that as a compliment but not in UKIP – it’s regarded as being very suspicious. Their anti-elitism feeds into an anti-professionalism – the attitude that ‘we will do things in our own cack-handed way and don’t you dare try to stop us.’ Their MEPs were not encouraged to engage in committee work, either, and the only UKIP MEP to actually be a rapporteur was told off for doing so by the leadership and subsequently had to resign. It was the only time UKIP attempted to write a report.”
While many of the party’s MEPs continue to be criticised for failing to turn up to crucial votes in Britain’s interests, others actively vote against them, in a bizarre effort to make the EU even more unpopular. “Some MEPs think the worse it gets, the better it gets, which is the old Leninist line,” he says. “It’s the attitude of ‘let them have bad legislation foisted on them, then they’re more likely to want to leave the EU.
“But we’re there to represent our people democratically and should do our best by these people. We should highlight where there’s bad legislation and do our best to vote against it. But half the time UKIP don’t even bother to turn up. The key vote on the national transaction tax was lost by one vote because Godfrey Bloom didn’t turn up to vote. You can’t say ‘we’re protecting the City’ and not even turn up to votes that matter. They’ve gone native.”
Campbell Bannerman expresses another common symptom of buyers’ remorse among former UKIP members – that of feeling the party was becoming something other than what it was meant to be – a force for bringing a referendum on EU membership to the table. The tipping point for his decision to return to the Conservatives, he says, was the feeling that campaigning within the party for a referendum would be more effective than doing so 200 miles away in Brussels in a party with no influence.
As such, one of his first acts a new party member was to book an appointment at Number 10 and make the case for a referendum personally to David Cameron. The Prime Minister is well known for being a europhile, though he would never say so himself, and was described by Daniel Finkelstein as wearing EU cufflinks in their first meeting in the early 1990s. As such, Cameron and Campbell Bannerman are never going to see eye to eye on Brussels, but he nonetheless praises the PM for the leadership he’s shown on Europe.
“He was very brave in setting up the European Conservatives & Reformists Group,” he says, “and it’s delivered. It went through an awkward start with birth pangs at the beginning but it even has the potential now to be the third biggest group next time, with more Italians, more Germans, and the Polish Law and Justice party should come out top there. There’s a real chance it could be quite substantial – and it’s not small now.”
But while the Conservatives’ European allies are set to do well in the upcoming European elections, the party’s own success here in Britain may well be threatened by UKIP dividing the right-wing and eurosceptic vote with its populist and anti-government stance. But Tories should be wary of writing off the European elections as an inconsequential protest vote, he says, as any UKIP gains will have consequences in 2015’s Westminster elections too.
“If UKIP wins the European Parliament elections, MPs should wake up to the fact that, with more MEPs, they can use those extra expenses and allowances to further their case at the expense of Westminster MPs. “One of the East of England MEPs wants to set up an office in Thurrock, for example, where we have a majority of 97. If you put an office on the High Street there, paid for by the European Parliament, you can see how that could be a real threat. Conservatives have to realise that it’s not safe in the European Parliament elections to treat UKIP as a protest vote. They risk putting Ed Miliband in power in a year’s time and losing the referendum we all want to see happen.”
Which, of course, goes back to his original fears when he left the party – that UKIP had somehow become something other than what it was meant to be – even now finding itself in the position of being the single biggest stumbling block towards the country winning a referendum of Europe – something that would be comical if were not so tragic.
“My nightmare is a Lib-Lab government signing us ip to more EU regulations and even the euro in 2015,” he says. “If UKIP achieve that end, what has it all been for? I see it as going against their claimed aims by derailing the best offer we have, which is a Conservative referendum. But, then, it would put UKIP out of business for a referendum to be won and that’s a serious consideration.”