Tory MPs can be forgiven for feeling a bit jittery this weekend. After all Douglas Carswell did not just win the Clacton by-election, he pulverised his Conservative opponent, securing an astonishing 60 per cent of the popular vote. The chances of the Tories holding on in Rochester and Strood, a seagull’s flight away across the Thames Estuary, now look distinctly fragile.
And if these seats, with nominal Conservative majorities running into five figures, are lost, where is safe?
Now a new Survation poll puts Ukip on 25 per cent and projects an astonishing 128 MPs for Farage’s party at a general election.
Compounding the sense of dread in Tory ranks is the realisation that no one has the faintest idea how to respond.
The Clacton defeat came only days after the media, as much part of the liberal metropolitan elite as the leaderships of the three main parties, lauded David Cameron for his conference speech and enthusiastically headlined his promises of tax cuts at the bottom and middle of the income scale and more spending on the NHS.
But only a few days later, virtually everyone in Clacton who voted Tory in 2010 voted for Nigel Farage’s self-styled People’s Army of Ukip. The purple terror swept through this faded seaside town like the Viking hordes who once menaced this stretch of the Essex coast.
Self-evidently, Cameron’s speech and its attendant pledges did no good at all in Clacton.
And nor did his salutary soundbite – go to bed with Nigel Farage and wake up with Ed Miliband. That cut no ice either, though it might yet have some effect when the chips are down in the general election campaign and people know they are choosing a government.
So what is to be done? What, if anything, can the Tories do to save their skins?
A pact with Ukip is one way out but that is becoming less likely by the day as Farage targets the Labour core vote as much as its Tory twin. He knows that a deal with Cameron would cause immense unrest in his own ranks and put paid to any realistic chance of challenging Labour in its heartlands – precisely what happened with the near miss in Heywood and Middleton after a string of second places in previous by-elections in Labour strongholds. Farage is not joking when he responds in the north, vote Conservative, get Labour.
The way things are going Farage does not need a pact.
Better, perhaps, for the Tories to begin to understand how they got into this mess. Here are ten things this Conservative-led government has done that are unlikely to commend themselves to the legions of Tory defectors in Clacton. And then ten more things that they have failed to do that might have safeguarded their vote last Thursday. Call then the sins of commission and omission. Readers may care to add or subtract from the list.
But the message is clear enough. If you go on treating your natural supporters with contempt, don’t be surprised if the political marketplace throws up a commercial rival.
Ten sins of commission
Raising income tax on the middle classes
Robbing middle class families of child benefit
Handing out big childcare subsidies to working mothers and doing nothing for the stay-at-home variety
Charging students £9,000 a year tuition fees
Pressing on with Labour’s green energy taxes
Implementing Harriet Harman’s Equality Act
Approving huge increases in overseas aid
Cutting defence spending
Pulling British troops out of Iraq too soon
Ten sins of omission
Failing to cut spending faster
Borrowing far too much and piling up the national debt
Failing to curb immigration – EU and non-EU
Failing to set out a clear EU reform agenda
Failing to conduct an early referendum on EU membership
Refusing to bring back grammar schools
Failing to quit the European Convention on Human Rights
Failing to push through changes to parliamentary boundaries
Failing to challenge the bossy, politically correct State
Cameron’s defenders will argue that he has been prevented from doing some of the above by his coalition with Nick Clegg. But that would be easier to accept if at any point in the last four years, he had confronted Clegg over a key policy point and forced him to back down. After all, a man whose poll ratings are consistently near zero is in no position to drive a hard bargain.
Beyond policy and action, there is the matter of tone. Insulting many of your natural supporters as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” is unlikely to endear you to them, especially when the main stylistic charge against you is that you are out of touch with the lives and opinions of ordinary people.
No surprise really that the tribune of the saloon bar Nigel Farage, with his pint and his packet of Rothmans, has arisen to capture the spirit of the age and its underlying hopes and fears.