So in the end Eastleigh went for the ‘crisis for Cameron’ option by putting the Tories in third behind UKIP. For those opponents of the Prime Minister, last night’s result represents a line through another one of their ‘five key tests’ for his leadership. I understand that those close to Adam Afriyie already expect the backbencher to make a number of interventions over the next few months which they hope will cement him as a serious voice speaking out against the Tory leadership, and even those who aren’t are mulling over how the party should change its strategy.
The inevitable reaction, and one every commentator and opposition MP is just waiting to happen, is that a rump of backbenchers press the Prime Minister to move the party further to the Right. There is a debate coming up in the House of Commons on Bulgarian and Romanian migrants which could well be a flashpoint on this, given the energy with which Nigel Farage’s party campaigned on immigration in Eastleigh.
But this push to the right ignores how it was that UKIP actually managed to come second. Sure, they pushed on all the dog-whistle issues you’d expect, but so did the Conservatives with an anti-gay marriage, anti-EU candidate and a campaign which majored on immigration and welfare (as well as that darned gravel pit). All the polls were actually pointing to a UKIP that was taking votes not just from the Tories but from Labour and Lib Dems too. On the Today programme this morning, Nigel Farage bigged up his Beppe Grillo credentials as much as his party’s right-wing stance, saying:
‘The UKIP message is resonating with people and we’re daring to talk about things like open-door immigration, which everybody wants to brush under the carpet, and secondly, I think there is an increasing revulsion at the three political parties who frankly, look the same, sound the same, and don’t offer any real policy differences.’
Michael Gove made the same point when he appeared on the same programme:
‘I think there are two aspects to it. I think on the first it is the case that there is a greater sense of disengagement from conventional politics now than there’s been certainly in my adult lifetime. The ‘none of the above, you’re all the same’ vote, is stronger. I think its part of a broader distaste for elites. People believe that elites have failed, everything from the expenses scandal, to what’s gone on in banking, to the recent revelations of what’s gone on in mid-Staffordshire, means there’s a sense there that the establishment, however you describe it or however constituted, has let folk down. That’s powerful.’
One question which is surely as important as where the Tories should position them for 2015 (and Cameron has been holding Chequers summits on the matter in the past few weeks), is how the main parties can address this anti-politics problem that is bleeding their vote. Douglas Carswell offered some thoughts on this on Coffee House yesterday, and as UKIP becomes a serious campaigning machine, this is going to be an increasingly important debate.