The Ukip threat


The spectacular success of the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) in capturing almost a quarter of the votes in last Thursday’s local elections in England has made prime minister David Cameron’s delicate dance over Europe more complicated.

Rightwing Conservative MPs are already demanding that, instead of waiting until the next parliament to hold his promised referendum on EU membership, Cameron should call a “mandate referendum” immediately. Such a poll would ask voters if the government should “negotiate a new relationship with the EU based on trade and political co-operation”. It would, as its Eurosceptic backers hope, limit any future British government’s room for manoeuvre in negotiations with EU partners, making withdrawal from the EU more likely.

Cameron should resist such calls, which not only conflict with Britain’s national interest but risk seducing Tories into believing that they can see off Ukip’s challenge by outbidding them on the right. Ukip’s appeal, like many populist movements across Europe, owes much to its apparent refusal to operate by normal political rules and its simple, black-and-white solutions to complex problems.

Exit polls suggest that only 10 per cent of those who voted Ukip did so because they thought its policies, which include bringing back smoking in pubs and increasing defence spending, as well as withdrawing from the EU, would make it the best party to govern Britain. Most said they wanted to “send a message” to an out-of-touch political establishment.

Ukip’s success will expose it and its candidates, some of whom are eccentric to say the least, to greater scrutiny, and party leader Nigel Farage is likely to face tougher questions about contradictions in Ukip’s policies, notably on taxation and spending. The party can expect to do well in next year’s European Parliament elections, perhaps even emerging with more votes than any other party, but Britain’s electoral system will make a breakthrough at Westminster more difficult.