A US warning for the Conservatives: pander to Ukip at your peril | John Kampfner

Courting Tea Party voters cost Romney the election. If Cameron isn’t careful, Farage’s party could cause similar havoc here

One of the more endearing features of contemporary Conservatives is their propensity to self-flagellate. As another difficult year closes, they have been at it again, analysing ad infinitum their struggles in governing and in the polls.

Over the last few days, notable centre-right commentators such as Matthew d’Ancona, Paul Goodman and Tim Montgomerie have, in their own ways, rated their party’s chances of prospering at the next general election as negligible. Reasons to be cheerful: one, two, three.

Montgomerie is the least pessimistic, arguing that Labour’s lead is not as it should be and that its crucial economic credibility rating has slipped further back. Both of these caveats are correct. For his colleagues the grim state of affairs is based around David Cameron’s inability to extend his appeal beyond his core vote. If they failed to make many inroads in 2010, when the country had tired of the brief and dysfunctional tenure of Gordon Brown, then when would Team Cam ever break through?

And things, it seems, can only get worse. If the conventional wisdoms hold true, the political story of 2013 will be the relentless surge of Ukip. The main parties are obsessed by it. The Tories are applying more red meat to their policies in a desperate hope to assuage Ukip voters.

Even Labour is in on the act, with an intriguing musing out loud by Jon Cruddas. Labour’s ever candid policy chief predicts that, having seen its poll numbers hurtle upwards from 4.5% to 15% in a year, Ukip will have a great 2013 and an even better 2014.

The secret of its success is no secret at all. Ukip’s message, professionally propagated by its leader, Nigel Farage, boils down to this: the country is going to the dogs, immigration and gay marriage are turning us into metrosexual cosmopolitans, and the only solution is exit from the European Union.

After being voted politician of the year in one survey, Farage was quick to point out that the real winner had been “none of the above”. The entire political class, he maintained, “is held in contempt. I am just lucky to be held in less contempt than the rest of them.”

Anti-politics is thriving, as it often does mid-term. In the past, the BNP, Ukip and even the Monster Raving Loony party garnered enough votes here and there to cause the establishment anxiety. The Greens made certain inroads, too. But the unreformed electoral system largely kept them at bay. It was the Liberal Democrats who benefited most, particularly post-Iraq, with the implicit “left of Labour” positioning of Charles Kennedy. That is now long gone, as Nick Clegg struggles to define a clear party of government appeal at a time of economic dislocation and the main party of government becoming increasingly strident and ideological.

The fizz is unlikely to go out from Farage any time soon. As Cruddas pointed out, Ukip could even come top in the European parliament elections in May 2014. This would send the mainstream parties into an even greater flap than they are in already.

The signs are that Cameron is drawing the wrong conclusions. Such is his fear of Tory voters defecting en masse into the warm xenophobic clutches of Farage that he is already moving back into core-vote territory. This is exactly what happened to his three post-1997 predecessors, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. Hard to recall (particularly with the last two), they all flirted with modernisation before allowing themselves to be yanked towards “dog-whistle” politics.

If he does so, he may prevent electoral disaster for a contingent of MPs targeted by Ukip – but he will also ensure that the Tories fail to win a majority, or even become the largest party, giving them the chance to flirt with the Lib Dems. His only chance, as D’Ancona points out, is to try to spread his appeal more widely, even at the risk of losing some malcontents (although the gravitational pull towards the mainstream at the time of general elections should not be underestimated).

Curiously, the only area where Cameron reflects his slightly more courageous positions of pre-2010 is in his determination to press ahead with gay marriage. He has, it seems, given up on green issues, while reverting to a traditional authoritarian approach towards criminal justice and civil liberties. Labour is likely to go down a similar route. It has already served notice that it will pander to Europhobes. Its pinch point will be its approach to welfare.

Farage would love to engage the two main parties in a 2013 variant of the culture wars. The divide is not north-south or even rich-poor, he might argue, although both play a role. According to his narrative, the country is divided between earthy Englanders of the shires and a liberal London-based elite.

If he succeeds in defining the mainstream debate, Farage will move the UK more in the direction of American politics. The simple minds of the Tea Party were initially dismissed as cranks, but with good organisation from some and panic from others, managed to hijack an entire political party.

The Republicans not only were resounding defeated in November; they have been forced to confront their own cultural-demographic miscalculation. They will not – whatever happens to the economy – win over modern America with their current messages.

Nor would Cameron be returned to power in 2015 if he did the same, no matter how great the temptation towards miserabilism over the next 12 months. He should listen to the voices of reason from his own side.

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