I was in Brussels last week and came across the New Europe newspaper which had on its back page this:
It’s a bit blurry but the text next to the photo of David Cameron reads: “PM who allowed MPs to claim for cleaning their moats wants eurocrat pay and perks cut?”
There are two things wrong with this. Firstly that it was not David Cameron who was Prime Minister at the time, and secondly that the MP concerned says that he did not claim for it, and he eventually repaid the rest of the claim anyway. But that isn’t my reason for mentioning this (though it would be nice if, in these days of competent grip on government, and responsible reporting, a correction were demanded and made). My reason for mentioning it is that it nicely encapsulates the ever-thorny question of what to do about UKIP.
UKIP clearly does attract a certain number of voters from all parts of the political spectrum who are dissatisfied: they feel that they are doing the right thing and the government is making it ever harder for them; they feel that they are always contributing and never get any thanks or anything back; and they feel unsure about the future. For the most part, however, this is not really about the EU (and nor can it be based on any reading of the UKIP policy pages which are a bizarre mish mash of more spending, less tax, shutting their eyes to reality and wishing the world would go away. Compared to the very sensible Policy Exchange Northern Lights polling on actual attitudes, UKIP are really fishing in quite a small pond).
All this talk of pacts only feeds into the central problem which is that voters want to know that their politicians have their best interests at heart, and to understand they are leading the way to a better future, with competence and focus. Some kind of weird stitch-up where both parties take ‘their’ voters for granted is a recipe for disaster, both because voters are more intelligent (and less biddable) than such plotting would suggest, and because it simply puts off addressing the underlying problems yet again.
The underlying issue is not, for the most part, really the EU and our relationship with our partners. It is grip and competence and narrative and delivery. The recent announcements on personnel, the conference speeches, the more focused atmosphere in the government are all good signs that, as Iain Martin rightly points out in Standpoint, the Tories have finally recognised that these things are important.
I was amazed over the summer to hear significant numbers of politicos saying that things were looking OK and they would be fine in 2015. To mangle quotes from two old bosses of mine (very different characters but equally competent and strategic), you can’t put lipstick on a pig, and you can’t fatten it on market day. Winning in 2015 will not be achieved by behind the scenes machinations with another party, nor by suddenly waking up on 5 April 2015. It needs work every single day.