The UK Independence Party — the anti-European Union, tough-on-immigration party that has bedeviled Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative party in recent years — is riding high following its best-ever showing in nationwide elections. As sure as night follows day, when UKIP does well it means the issue of Britain’s relationship with the EU is pushed to the top of the political agenda.
UKIP secured 23% of the national popular vote in local government elections earlier this month, just two points behind the Conservatives. The left-wing Labour party came in narrowly ahead with 29% — a pitiful showing for the main party of opposition given the current miserable state of the UK economy — while the Tories’ coalition partners, the left-of-center Liberal Democrats, won 14%.
It’s now clear that, one way or another, UKIP will have a big say in the outcome of the general election in 2015. But exactly what effect it will have — and who benefits — depends on whether, in their heart of hearts, UKIP’s leaders and supporters see their party as a serious force in national politics or as an insurgent movement with the aim of pushing the Conservatives to the right, in the mold of America’s Tea Party.
UKIP is often called “the British Tea Party” — like the Tea Party itself, it’s broadly to the right of establishment conservative positions on most issues. It also shares the Tea Party’s populist, anti-establishment streak. However, while the Tea Party supported candidates who opposed establishment Republicans in primary contests for the last two congressional elections, it didn’t run candidates against the GOP in the subsequent elections.
UKIP is an entirely separate political party, and this creates a very different dynamic to that of the Tea Party/GOP relationship. The danger for Cameron and the Conservatives is that a strong showing by UKIP in 2015 will split the right-of-center vote, allowing the Labour party to limp into power by default, possibly in coalition with the Lib Dems.
In a bid to counter the UKIP threat, Cameron has been shifting subtly rightwards by unveiling tougher policies on immigration and welfare. But the Tories’ weakness — and UKIP’s strength — remains Europe, and in the wake of the latest results pressure has been growing on Cameron to “shoot the UKIP fox” (a uniquely British political figure of speech, with its origins in the rural pastime of fox-hunting and which roughly translates as “deprive a party of its most effective issue”) by taking a harder line on the EU.
In a speech in January, Cameron committed his party to holding an in/out referendum on EU membership in 2017, after attempting to secure a better deal for Britain in negotiations with other member states. He won backing for that position this week from President Obama, who said Britain should try to “fix” its relationship with Europe before breaking it off completely — a slight softening of his administration’s stance from earlier this year, when one of his top officials warned against a British exit.
The glaring problem with this strategy: before the Tories can hold any referendum or enter into negotiations, they would have to win the general election — and this time, ideally, with an outright majority. And the main obstacle to a Tory victory is UKIP.