David Cameron has now decided that rather than pretend Ukip don’t exist, he’s going to attack them, and do so repeatedly. This morning on BBC Breakfast, the Prime Minister remarked that ‘we’ve seen some extraordinary statements from Ukip financial backers and candidates and I think it does go to the issue of the competence of the party: what on earth are they doing selecting people and allowing people like this to be in their party’.
But the Prime Minister didn’t just attack the ‘people like this’ who he clearly feels prove his old theory about fruitcakes without him needing to repeat those insults. He also tried to reason with voters about whether they should have an angry moment in the European elections, or whether their vote is still important. He said:
‘But my pitch in this election is to remember: when you vote, you are sending people to run your local council, set your local council tax, you’re sending people to the European Parliament who will legislate on the regulation faced by British business and the bills paid by British taxpayers.
‘So we need the politics of the answer – we need parties that have a plan, as we have a plan in the Conservative party to deal with these things. So just sending a message or making a protest doesn’t actually achieve, I think, what people want.’
Clearly the Prime Minister feels that firstly Ukip has recently given itself enough rope to make attacking its credibility and competence seem worthwhile rather than bullying or dismissive. Perhaps he feels that some of the candidates and party figures who’ve made it into print and broadcasts will push voters beyond considering Ukip a protest vote and towards considering it an unpleasant party with racist candidates. There isn’t much evidence so far, though, that these exposés turn voters off Nigel Farage’s party. Secondly, he clearly thinks there may be some mileage in trying to persuade voters away from Ukip, rather than consigning the European election result to the great dustbin of embarrassing but rather meaningless results for an incumbent government.
Either way, his swing voter Tory MPs who I’ve been talking to over the past few weeks are keen for the PM to have a post-European election plan. They know that Downing Street is eyeing various policies on human rights reform and the like that are sitting on shelves waiting for a good day for an announcement as a means of buying off angry Tory right-wingers. But they also want a push from the troops. There are many backbenchers who have strong eurosceptic credibility as a result of rebellions (and ministers such as Andrea Leadsom too) who are pretty happy with the way the Prime Minister is behaving and who wouldn’t mind spending the days after the European result taking to the airwaves and penning op-eds arguing that the party is fine, it will recover and that everything’s on track for 2015. Their great fear, though, is that Number 10 won’t organise this kind of fightback, leaving a radio silence into which ministers with a track record of gratuitously insulting Ukip, such as Anna Soubry and Ken Clarke, can wander and wreak havoc.