After successfully defending Newark and seeing a better than expected result in the European Parliament elections, Conservative activists have every reason to be optimistic about the prospects of a majority in 2015 as they hit the doorsteps over the next 11 months. But with UKIP riding high in the polls, Daniel Hannan is a little more sceptical.
It’s difficult to find a Conservative politician that is at once fiercely independently minded, not to mention spoken, yet at the same time the most loyal of the loyal when it comes to defending both party and leader. While in Britain we fret about the identikit “A-listers” filling up Westminster with ne’er an original thought between them, in Brussels we have the self-described Radical Whig and serial NHS-basher Daniel Hannan MEP as head of the European Conservatives & Reformists Group.
The European Parliament is, as recent elections have shown, a different world of course but, despite the very clear blue ideological water between Hannan and David Cameron, the former has been unstinting in his support for his leader and Prime Minister against those who reject him for being, in their view, insufficiently conservative, libertarian or eurosceptic.
So, while Hannan has never been once to mince his words, it was something of a surprise to be met with such a curt response to the question of whether the Conservatives have a realistic chance of forming a majority government in 2015. “With UKIP candidates contesting every seat in Great Britain,” he asks? “No.”
Well that’s that cleared up then. Hannan has always been a vocal supporter of some sort of electoral pact with UKIP, in which the purple kippers would decline to stand in marginal seats with eurosceptic Tories standing. Indeed, this already happened to an extent in 2010, though it didn’t stop Ed Balls squeezing in with a majority lower than the number of votes taken by UKIP in Morley & Outwood.
But four years ago, UKIP had nowhere near as strong a hand it now has. It has now fully usurped the Liberal Democrats as the third party in polling and consistently comes a good second in by-elections – not to mention topping the Euro results – and the party has now become much more reliant on traditional Labour votes. There’s a good chance a deal with the Tories would alienate this new voter base.
But is there a chance that, like Cleggmania in 2010, the UKIP surge could evaporate when people actually get to the polling booth? “Yes,” Hannan says. “UKIP is going to lose a lot of support between over the next twelve months. Nigel knows that perfectly well: he’s a former commodities broker – he knows how to spot when the price of something is peaking.”
Clearly, however, he does not think this is enough to save the next election – adding the Conservatives could very well be heading for the same kind of defeat forced upon their Canadian cousins in the early 1990s, when the challenge brought by the more socially conservative, economically liberal Reform Party reduced the Progressive Conservatives to a tiny rump in the House of Commons.
But Reform’s support was concentrated almost entirely in the eastern prairie provinces. Even with its growing Brighton-like enclave in Thurrock, there’s surely no parallel with UKIP? “I’m afraid the Canadian parallel is a very strong one,” he says. “UKIP doesn’t need a regional base to ensure that the Tories lose the next election. It doesn’t need a single MP. If it polls even a fifth of what it did at the Euro-elections, Miliband will be our next PM, and we can kiss goodbye to the referendum.”
He then reiterates his preferred way of ensuring the Conservatives do achieve a majority in 11 months’ time. “I don’t think there’ll be a grand alliance [between UKIP and the Conservatives]. It took the Canadians ten years – ten years of losing – to get to that point [the merger that produced the Conservative Party of Canada]. But some accommodation in the marginal seats, with candidates standing down in each other’s favour, might well tip the election and give us the In/Out referendum. I think most UKIP voters want that referendum, and would vote accordingly.”
But clearly that’s not the only thing needed. Going back to Thurrock, the Conservatives took a hell of a beating in Essex during the local elections – particularly the south of the county – an area once considered the heartland of aspirational, working class Thatcherism. A Thatcherism its voters appear to now see more in blokey City man Farage than Eton-educated Cameron. Thankfully, Hannan’s prescription seems to be exactly what the party is – finally – beginning to shout about.
“Essex has some of our most attractive national characteristics,” he asserts. “It has always been undeferential, independent-minded, radical. It was involved in the Peasants’ Revolt and Cade’s rebellion; it was strong for Puritanism in the sixteenth century and Parliament in the seventeenth – indeed, Cromwell’s hardest-bitten troopers came from that county.
“It seeded New England in its own bolshie image. It was the county that turned as definitively against Labour in the 1970s as it had against the Stuarts. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. To win Essex, we have to appeal to the patriotic, brave, stubborn, bloody-minded people who live there. That means tax cuts, national independence and more localism.”
Can’t see anyone arguing with that
This interview originally appeared on Parliament Street.