Westminster know-alls like to say Ukip’s almost certain victory in Thursday’s Rochester and Strood by-election is “priced in”. Quite what they mean by this, I am not sure. Perhaps it means that since the Conservatives are resigned to defeat, their MPs will take the whole thing in their stride, marching in step behind Dave towards their next triumph. Perhaps it means that Ukip by-election victories are now so predictable that they will not disrupt the orderly conduct of election strategy at party headquarters. And perhaps it just means that most enduring of political messages – don’t panic.
Of course, it was all so different in Birmingham at the party conference when Mark Reckless announced his embrace of Mr Farage. Then, we were told, this stretch of Middle England on the North Kent coast was so different to the vulgar wastelands of Clacton that the Ukip surge would be halted. Rochester (if not Strood) was far too middle class, prosperous and well educated to fall for the crude simplicities of Mr Farage.
We were also told that the Conservatives were determined to hold the line in Rochester and Strood. Dave spoke of kicking Reckless’s “fat arse” and Grant Shapps and Co spoke of chucking the kitchen sink at Ukip. As they have surely done, judging from the number of times ministers, MPs and party activists have been ordered onto the campaign trail. Cameron, himself, has been there four times, when once it was thought unthinkable for a sitting Prime Minster to bother himself with something so parochial as a by-election.
Well, the kitchen sink has been well and truly chucked. And, judging from the polls, it has come bouncing straight back – pots, pans, plates and rolling pins and all – to hit the Tory party smack in the face.
The name of the game now is damage limitation. Defeat in Rochester will mean that in the space of just six weeks, the Tories will have lost two supposedly safe seats with majorities of around 10,000. The spin will be nothing of any significance has changed. By-elections are nothing more than an exercise in protest voting – an opportunity for the public to kick some fat arses safe in the knowledge that Dave’s tenure in Downing Street will not be jeopardised.
Yet, there is rather more to it than that. Ukip is already having a profound impact on Tory strategy. Dave, who once vowed to “share the proceeds of growth”, is now increasingly wedded to the promise of tax cuts. In his party conference speech, he pledged to cut income tax at the bottom of the scale and then again on middle class voters who have been iniquitously dragged into paying 40 per cent tax, once the preserve of the seriously better-off, on earnings of little more than £40,000 a year.
Yesterday, as Rochester loomed large, the Prime Minister reiterated these promises, backed by a Tory HQ analysis suggesting that middle class earners will pay £2,000 less tax under the Tories over the next Parliament compared with Labour.
Ukip, it should be noted, are promising even bigger tax cuts at the bottom and the middle of the income scale.
Similarly, with immigration, Ukip’s ace card. Dave is committed to a big speech on immigration before Christmas intended to put some flesh on the bones of vague promises to curb the uncontrolled influx of economic migrants from the EU.
So, on at least two key policy areas, taxes and immigration, Ukip has moved the Tory dial to the right. It remains to be seen how far and, to what extent if any, this belated shift affects the political landscape. Some observers suspect that it is all too little, too late and that the split on the right of UK politics is now too deeply entrenched to be pulled back by marginal adjustments.
At least Cameron and a few members of the Cabinet, notably Philip Hammond, Iain Duncan Smith, and Theresa May, appear to be paying some attention to what is happening in the real world.
Not so Ed Miliband’s Labour party, increasingly threatened by Ukip’s rise in its northern heartlands. Ed remains implacably opposed to a referendum on EU membership and in his umpteenth relaunch speech this week, could only weakly observe the need to talk more about immigration while not trying to “out-Ukip Ukip”. No chance of that, then.
Ukip’s rise this year has been astonishing and it has already bullied Dave into policy shifts he flatly rejected when advocated by the Tory Right. One suspects that there is far more to come of this kind.