A day after giving his strongest backing yet to a possible referendum on Britain’s often volatile membership of the European Union, Prime Minister David Cameron drew cheers from his party’s faithful at their annual conference Wednesday as he recounted vetoing an EU-wide accord to coordinate budget policies last year.
“I said no, Britain comes first and I vetoed the EU treaty,” said Mr. Cameron, whose party’s euroskeptic right wing has more MPs than ever and is clamoring to claw back powers from Brussels, the de facto capital of the EU. Expectations are also growing that he will demand a freeze in the EU budget at a summit next month, allowing him to claim that the UK is not propping up the eurozone.
The Conservative leader’s tough approach to Europe this week, however, has also had much to do with neutralizing the threat from the rival United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which recent polls suggest is no longer a marginal player in British politics.
The party, which advocates a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, was level with the Liberal Democrats as the third-largest party, with garnering 8 percent of support, according to a poll last month. In the previous month, it emerged at 12 percent, two points ahead of the Lib Dems.
UKIP's voter base comes traditionally from working-class and lower-middle-class older males, and has frequently been characterized simply as a protest vehicle for voters disillusioned with mainstream politics – despite having an activist base that often very clearly identifies itself with Ron Paul-style libertarian ideology. But the party is hoping to spring a surprise next month in elections to elect regional police commissioners.
And the party is eying an even bigger prize in 2014’s elections to the European Parliament, where it already has 12 MEPs (European Parliament members). If it finished ahead of the Tories, who topped the poll in 2009, the pressure for a referendum would reach a crescendo and Cameron’s own leadership of the Conservative party would face an existential threat.
Cameron sought to neutralize the UKIP threat and satiate euroskeptic calls in his own party Tuesday when he described a referendum as the "cleanest, neatest, simplest, and most sensible" way to obtain the "fresh consent" of the British electorate after moves to reorder the EU following the crisis in the eurozone.
But will it be enough to stem the rise of UKIP, and prevent it from stealing Tory seats in a British general election for the first time? (Ironically, UKIP remains without a presence in the Westminster Parliament, whose primacy it wants to uphold.)
According to Robert Ford, a politics lecturer at the University of Manchester who has researched UKIP in depth, says it’s true that the party are polling better than they ever have outside of the immediate run-up to European Parliament election, and a lot of that would seem to be coming from disgruntled Conservative voters camping out with UKIP.
But Dr. Ford also has doubts over UKIP’s ability to turn headlines about polling into actual Westminster seats, mainly because its two big campaign issues of Europe and immigration are slipping among the public’s priorities.
He adds: “I would expect UKIP to do extremely well it the next European Parliament election. In that sense they are going to be a very important feature of British politics in the next two years, but whether they then are able to convert that into a general election, that is when we will find if it is a flash in the pan or not. There is no evidence that they are building the basis of support.”
“In fact there is a danger here for the Conservatives, because if they tack too far to the right in an attempt to keep the UKIP vote down, then they may lose Liberal Democrat leaning voters at the other end," he says. "In fact, Labour can pick up more seats through Lib Dem voters switching to Labour than the Tories can lose through Tory voters switching to UKIP.”