Ukip continues to talk up a big role for itself in the Out campaign. As Britain’s most Eurosceptic party, it is eager to dive into a referendum it has been waiting almost a quarter of a century for, but the extent of its involvement is not clear.The kippers believe that their ground operation will be vital to the Out campaign — one Ukip source points out that all of Ukip’s 45,000-odd members are gearing up for the fight of their lifetime and it’ll be hard for Conservatives to match this. Therefore, if the Brexit campaign has any hope of success, Ukip would argue it has to play a prominent role. And if Ukip plays a prominent role, so does Nigel Farage.
But Conservatives disagree. The Tories are acutely aware that Farage is a marmite character and worry his talk of HIV and immigrants might turn people away from the Brexit campaign. Then there is the effectiveness of Ukip’s operation. As witnessed with Labour’s infamous ‘five million conversations’ during the general election, it’s the quality and content of the conversations that matter — not the quantity.
On this front, Conservatives don’t believe Ukip has much to offer. As one senior Tory source who worked on the party’s ground campaign puts it:
‘Ukip’s ground machine is laughably amateurish. Why do you think they lost so badly? We crushed them in Thanet South, which was their only real target seat. They have almost no activists and very weak central organisation. Their digital operation was flimsy and poorly targeted. And Douglas Carswell won in Clacton only because he was Douglas and has been the MP for a decade.’
So if Ukip aren’t involved, where will Eurosceptic Conservatives find the troops to fight for for a Brexit? Two potential sources are Business for Britain and Conservative Way Forward. Both groups insist they are fully behind the Prime Minister’s renegotiation strategy and they will campaign based on the deal he achieves. But if Cameron only achieves a superficial renegotiation, it’s likely that BfB and CWF will move throw their weight behind a Brexit.
As I revealed last week, Conservative Way Forward is planning to build on the work of Team 2015 and Roadtrip 2015 and turn itself into nationwide campaigning organisation. Plus, Business for Britain is masterminded by Matthew Elliot, the brains behind the Taxpayers’ Alliance and the successful No to AV campaign.
If these two groups end up behind the Out campaign with their big databases of conservative activists, Ukip’s demands for a prominent role will have significantly less merit. Although the In campaign has its own problems, the Out-ers will have to figure out how Ukip and some Tories can co-exist. At present, there seems to be little appetite from both sides to make a partnership work.
UPDATE: A Ukip spokesman gets in touch to question the role of the campaign groups mentioned above:
‘How many members does Conservative Way Forward have? 8,300 Facebook likes — which is not really a ground campaign and their access to the Team 2015 database will be limited, I somehow doubt that the Conservative party will allow access, and there are always the data protection laws to consider after all.
Business for Britain again has some money, and some profile but no activists. Ukip are the first to admit that we are far from perfect but they really need to wind their necks in a little bit if this is going to work at all. There are far bigger fish to fry if we are going to win this than each other’s egos.’