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Tuesday, May 07, 2013 

Cameron: a hostage to fortune.

Although it feels like aeons ago, it was only back in January that David Cameron delivered his Bloomberg speech, pledging an in/out referendum on EU membership should his party win the next election. At the time it must have seemed a good idea, and initially it looked like it had had its desired effect: his restive backbenchers cheered him to the rafters, it seemed to have trapped Labour, and surely it would have some impact on the increase in support for Ukip.

Less than six months later and it's as though the jaws of the trap have snapped back. To further mix metaphors, it always seemed as though Cameron was setting himself up as a hostage to fortune. The man he so wanted to be the heir to never gave in to his backbenchers; instead he thrived on picking fights with them. True, Cameron failed where Blair succeeded, which partially explains the backbencher ire in the first place, yet Dave caved in at first sign of trouble.  Rather than being sated, they've demanded ever since that Cameron move faster, to the point where it looks as though legislation may be forthcoming in this parliament as a further sop.

Nor has it had the desired effect on Ukip. Indeed, they've been emboldened by it, as was predicted. As counter-intuitive as it seems, support for Ukip isn't about Europe, as is now hopefully apparent. It can be overstated just how far the popularity, such as it is, for Farage is down to a state of mind, and it'd be great to quantify how many of those saying they'd vote for the party would still do so if there was to be a vote on the EU tomorrow.  Total disaffection and/or sending a message of protest nonetheless explains much of it.  It's possible that some of those who've decamped could be won back if Cameron shifted slightly further to the right, or better yet, recruited some advisers from outside his own social milieu, but it's deeply dubious as to whether those voicing their discontent beyond a mere protest can be so easily persuaded to return.

Thankfully, it does seem as though those making clear that much of Ukip's support is irreconcilable are now in the majority.  As easy as it is to fall into stereotype, it's difficult not to meet the odd person that fits all the descriptions of being a Kipper, and they usually aren't shy in venturing their views on Britain as it is in 2013.  They might not be racist, but they certainly don't like immigrants even if they don't mind those they know of locally; they blame the EU at the first opportunity; and they are invariably complaining about something or other.  They don't have to read the Mail/Express/Telegraph, but it helps, and they regard things as being much better at some point in the past, even if they can't say exactly when.

The obvious point to make is that plenty of people also hold one or more of the above things to be self-evident, yet they either don't let everyone else know about it or would ever dream of voting for a party other than the main three.  Nor are any of these things irrational or wrong; rapid change in local communities as happened post-2004 was bound to lead to a backlash, while even those of us who would stay in the EU hardly regard it as being anything close to an unmitigated force for good.  Nostalgia also has to be taken into account: reading the Graun's pieces today on 1963 you can't help but think that was a pretty good year on the whole.  Would any of us who weren't around at the time actually want to live in that period were such a thing possible though?  Almost certainly not.

Those who have moved to Ukip also realise they can't turn the clock back.  They might want to, and they want to make clear that they do, but they know full well that Ukip isn't going to win a general election, nor necessarily would they want Farage to be the prime minister.  This is the conundrum facing the Tories: in almost every way, the party would be a better vehicle for their discontent, as many of their MPs also hold Ukip voters' prejudices, yet for any number of reasons they've lost faith in them and so would rather register their anger elsewhere.  This can't all be put down to Cameron or the detoxification strategy, nor can it be easily explained by all three parties fighting over the same territory.  It is more, as Max Dunbar writes, a lashing out at the present while coming over all rose-tinted about the past.  Perhaps it can be best explained thus: whereas the young disenchanted simply don't vote, those who feel much the same but who were brought up with the importance of the franchise drilled into them regard putting an X in the Ukip box the least worst option.

Lord Lawson's call for us to leave the EU immediately doesn't really change things much.  The EU is the least of most people's worries, although should the Tories increasingly fight over just how soon the referendum should be they might become excised at the amount of attention something arcane is receiving.  Cameron's problem is that a move that was designed to buy him more time and hopefully damage the other parties has so spectacularly backfired.  He doesn't want us to leave the EU, businesses on the whole don't want us to leave, and nor I'd wager would the electorate should the vote be held tomorrow.  He can't however take such a risk, and so the uncertainty that is so damaging will continue instead.  And all the time the boneheads within his party continue their rattling.

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