As you know I have taken quite an interest in UKIP’s fortunes, and what they portend for the Conservatives. I have followed your career with interest, and I must confess I always enjoy your contributions. I particularly liked your joke that you worked hard in the City of London for twenty years, at least until lunch time.
But there is one thing I wonder about. What exactly are you up to?
You say quite rightly that UKIP has drawn supporters from all parties, and those people would not necessarily revert to their old voting habits if UKIP ceased to exist. Even so, you would probably accept that the Conservatives would suffer most from a strong UKIP performance at the general election. Yet a Tory government is the only hope you have of getting the referendum that could make your dreams come true. The better you do, the less likely you are to get what you want.
So what is your real agenda?
Let me tell you my theory. Your declared aim of ushering Britain out of the EU has come up against your promise that UKIP is “here to stay”. If secession were the priority, you would get behind the only party with a chance of forming a government that had, whatever else you may dislike about it, offered the referendum that makes it possible. That would mean assigning a degree of credibility and good faith to the Tories, and acknowledging that one party had a policy that was manifestly different from that of the other two. Being “here to stay”, though, depends on promoting cynicism about the main parties, and on insisting that they are all the same. (I think you call them all “social democrats”). You had to choose, and you decided that becoming a permanent presence in British politics was more important than helping bring about the referendum.
Am I close? If so I can’t say I blame you. After all, a Conservative victory followed by the referendum result you want could see UKIP vanish in a puff of logic, and in as little as four years. What would you do for an encore?
I can see that the path you have chosen offers rather better job security. But what is the purpose of this new permanent presence? You are astute enough to know that UKIP is a protest party for its voters, even if it isn’t for you. Disheartening though it must be, you know that it is not principle that fuels your bandwagon. My final by-election poll in Eastleigh found more than four in five of your voters there were protesting about something.
That’s not to say you don’t talk about issues. It is sometimes observed that UKIP has broadened its outlook beyond the European question, and there is some truth in that: UKIP has gone from being an anti-EU movement to being a broader-based none-of-the-above party. The most successful none-of-the-above party of the day, certainly, but a none-of-the-above party nonetheless. (In that sense, without wishing to upset you unduly, you have become the Heir to Clegg.)
One of your favourite riffs is that you are prepared to raise things that the other parties brush under the carpet. But in your own way, you do the same. You know the world can’t be changed back to the way many of your supporters would like it to be. But rather than say so, you pretend that our problems could be solved – and we could increase defence spending, cut tax and balance the budget all at once – if only we did a handful of apparently simple things, like leave the EU and clamp down on immigration. (Making unkeepable promises in the expectation of never having to keep them is another qualification in the Heir to Clegg stakes). As it happens, your supporters know the world is more complicated than that; a vote for UKIP is a vote against the complication.
It seems to be working for the time being. But to keep your momentum up, you must continue to cultivate disaffection, disillusionment, anxiety, distrust and grumpiness – and no longer for a cause, but as an end in itself. I can’t believe that’s what you went into politics to do. And as I say, it must be demoralising for someone of your talent. So why on earth do you do it?
Maybe you could explain it to me over a pint.
This article was first published in the Mail on Sunday