UKIP is not such a threat to the Tories after all

John Rentoul

farage2 300x168 UKIP is not such a threat to the Tories after allI have reverted, slightly, to my original position on UKIP in my column in The Independent on Sunday today. That is: it is an irritant to David Cameron rather than the end of his chances of remaining Prime Minister after the election.

This is not because, as Godfrey Bloom, the former UKIP Euro-MP, alleges, Nigel Farage has done a deal with the Tories to stand down in some seats in return for a peerage. A spokesman for Farage said last night the story was a “total invention” and that Farage had “no idea what he’s talking about” – although UKIP does think it is entitled to working peerages on the same basis as any other party.

No, the reason for my downgrading the threat to the Tories from UKIP is partly because, as Rob Ford has pointed out, constituency polls this far from a general election have a poor record. The findings of Alan Bown’s eight polls in UKIP target seats are interesting (and see Survation’s response here), but, as a No 10 source said, they haven’t “changed the price of fish very much”.

But the most important reason is this: UKIP has taken more votes from the Tories than from Labour, but that effect is already “in the market”, in that it is already reflected in the opinion polls. Those polls show the Tories ending the year five points behind Labour. At the end of last year they were 11 points behind. Five points behind at this stage is a perfectly winnable proposition. The UKIP question is, therefore: Will it win over even more Tory voters rather than Labour ones between now and the election?

As I say, I don’t think so. UKIP is on 12 per cent in the polls now. It will go up around the time of the European Parliament elections next year and it will go down again. At the general election, I think it will secure less than 12 per cent of the vote. Will the composition of that, say, 10 per cent be more at the expense of Tory support than UKIP support is now? I doubt it.

That said, Cameron is not really five points behind where he needs to be to win. If the Tories and Labour win an equal share of the vote, Labour would almost certainly be the largest party in a hung parliament.

Hence my Four-Square Rule, my desperate attempt to remember the one important fact of our apparently skewed* electoral system: that the Tories need to be four points ahead of Labour in order to elect the same number of MPs. Cameron is nine points behind where he needs to be: needing a four-and-a-half-point swing to remain Prime Minister.

We could, if we wanted to be sophisticated, or if I had the capacity to retain three numbers rather than just one, call it the 147 Rule. A Labour lead of one point would be enough to give Ed Miliband a majority in the Commons; a Conservative lead of seven is needed to give David Cameron the majority he would dearly love.

On this last point I disagree with my esteemed rival Matthew d’Ancona, who writes today:

In moments of private candour, the PM admits that he would much prefer another coalition with Clegg to governing with a small Tory majority, pleading daily with a handful of his own backbenchers, staving off disaster hour by hour.

I’m not saying that Cameron hasn’t occasionally noted the paradox that a coalition is in some ways easier to manage than a small majority, but I doubt if it is his higher-order preference. This is not because he wants shot of the Liberal Democrats particularly, although he wouldn’t mind the greater more room for manoeuvre afforded by a larger majority, but because it would look better on his CV when he has to present himself to those panels of historians voting to rank post-war prime ministers in order of greatness.

*The present constituency boundaries are tilted against the Conservatives, but the equalisation of electorates proposed by Cameron and blocked by Nick Clegg would not have removed all the apparent bias. The fact remains that Conservative and Labour voters tend to behave differently: Conservatives turn out even in safe seats, whereas Labour supporters are more likely to turn out in marginals. Thus the Labour vote is distributed more efficiently. This is not a bias in the system, but an illusion of bias created by behavioural difference.

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  • MakeMPsOwnUp

    Farage had “no idea what he’s talking about”

    Has he ever known what he’s talking about?

    UKIP does think it is entitled to working peerages on the same basis as any other party.

    Their performance in the European Parliament will see them behaving the same way if they were in the Lords. They’d simply cite Hanningfield and others behaviour of clocking, then staying around just long enough to claim attendance before going home.

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