They say the first step is to admit that you have a problem. But when it comes to politics, it’s never quite that straightforward.
This week has seen something of a confused Tory backlash in the face of the threat that no one in the party wants to talk about: UKIP. Conservative apparatchiks have been doing the rounds in the papers and on the blogs dismissing out of hand the suggestion that the UKIP surge is anything worth bothering about. UKIP are a fringe party, they say. A single-cause pressure group. A bunch of cranks, even. Iain Martin writes that Tory modernisers have dismissed Nigel Farage’s latest assault as a ‘daft distraction’, and that anything to the right of David Cameron should simply be ignored. Even young Conservatives are peddling the nothing-to-see-here line. After I suggested last week that UKIP could be a more attractive option for young right-wingers, I was met with a barrage of tweets from twenty-something Tories insisting that there was absolutely nothing to be worried about.
Nothing to worry about? Why, then, have these very same card-carrying Cameroons been quietly and surreptitiously delving in the dark arts to subvert their apparently harmless UKIP counterparts?
Twitter, on this occasion, seems to be representative. Until the last two weeks I had scarcely seen a Tory mention UKIP. Now, for some strange and wonderful reason, Conservative tweeters seem to have been drawn into a race to the bottom to find the anecdote that most embarrasses Farage and his supporters. I have seen colourful tales of drunken UKIP-ers making fools of themselves, inventive stories about the party’s manifesto and the re-emergence of unfortunate comments dug up from deep in the past. The winner of the most desperate smear award goes to Conservative Future chairman Ben Howlett, who alleged that a young UKIP-er threatened to put a bomb under his mother’s car at the CF Christmas party. Believe me, to say that this is hotly disputed by other witnesses would be an understatement.
This is more than just a few idle tweets; it seems a concerted effort to undermine a party that the Tories publicly insist is far from their minds. When Guido Fawkes hinted that Bill Cash was reaching the end of his tether, right-wing commentator Andrew Lilico reacted with derision. Why so defensive, Andrew? After all, Guido’s spies are seldom wrong.
The vitriol came to a head yesterday, when former UKIP-er – and now presumably Conservative voter – Abhijit Pandya told the Telegraph that ‘no decent Tory should vote UKIP’. The implication, then, is that voting UKIP is somehow ‘indecent’. Its author’s questionable past aside, this naked attack piece in a Tory newspaper was the culmination of a two week assault on UKIP from the Conservative Party and its friends.
The Tories are calmly brushing UKIP aside with one hand and brutally bashing them with the other. The truth, though they won’t admit it, is that Conservatives are running scared from a very real and credible threat from the right. Whether it is UKIP’s impressive recent poll ratings, Tim Montgomerie’s warnings (£) of potential defections or the news that some 10% of Tory voters are considering jumping ship, Cameron’s army know they are under serious pressure.
Rather than resorting to weak attacks that are about as subtle as a sonic boom, the Conservative Party needs to stand back and admit that it has a problem: its core vote is not happy. Not happy at all.
Alexander Wickham is a freelance journalist and blogger who writes for The Independent, amongst others. He tweets at @Wickham_A