If UKIP manages to defy the odds (and the polls) and win the Newark by-election, claiming their first seat in the House of Commons, the achievement will speak for itself – and the strength of the British political earthquake will be confirmed.
But what will a Conservative victory in Newark mean? What will it mean if the Tories squeak across the finish line ahead of UKIP when the votes are counted on Thursday?
The Conservatives will spin a very upbeat narrative, as would be well within their rights. For an incumbent governing party locked into an unpopular coalition and coming off the back of a double mauling in the local and European elections, managing to staunch the bleeding and retain the confidence of the voters of Newark would be just the shot in the arm that David Cameron’s team needs.
But given the extraordinary amount of effort that the Conservatives are expending to beat UKIP (in a race where Labour and the Liberal Democrats are relegated to the status of also-rans), have the Tories blundered by raising expectations so much that anything other than an emphatic Conservative victory will now be perceived as underwhelming, even worrying?
Be in no doubt, the Conservatives are desperate to hold on to Newark in the by-election. David Cameron has ordered all of the key cabinet members to go to Newark to campaign, while prospective Conservative Party candidates for 2015 and beyond have been sternly warned that they will be struck from the list of approved candidates unless they campaign vigorously enough in the town. Meanwhile, the local campaign office has an MP “roll of honour” prominently displayed on the wall, where visiting Tory MPs have to clock in and out. CCHQ takes the UKIP threat in Newark extremely seriously.
But many Tory seats are vulnerable to a UKIP surge in the general election, and no party will be able to mount the kind of desperate scorched-earth campaign against UKIP currently underway in Newark, replicated 30 or more times across the country. If this is what it takes for the Conservatives to halt the UKIP advance in just one parliamentary constituency, how will they cope when all of their incumbents are up for re-election in 2015 and all of their seats in play?
Of course, the opposite could also hold true. Some argue – quite plausibly – that it is the growing, insurgent party that fights best in a single constituency but which will struggle to marshal the resources to compete in multiple constituencies in a national general election. These people certainly have overwhelming evidence from other parties once seen as “the next force in British politics” on their side.
But what they miss – those who still blithely write off UKIP’s future prospects – is the fact that UKIP’s appeal and current performance is very little to do with their party organisation chart or their untried and untested voter mobilisation tactics. Previous insurgent parties such as the SDP were formed from schisms at the top of the establishment; the power of UKIP comes from the grass roots and lies in an idea.
The idea of UKIP is sometimes fuzzy around the edges, is articulated slightly differently by each activist the media might stop and question in the street, and is sometimes expressed forcefully and unpleasantly in a way that the party would not like; but for all that, it has the huge advantage of being small-c conservative without the long half-life toxicity of the Conservative party, unabashedly pro-British and demonstrably not of the “same old” political establishment.
Such is the British public’s current disdain for the same old Westminster political parties with their platitudes and broken promises, and such is the growing desire for a return to conviction politics where ideas and principles actually mean something and are worth arguing about, Britain could now be entering a phase where the country is unusually receptive to new ideas and bold solutions. If this is the case, even Grant Shapps, his computerised voter data models and his army of young student activists may be powerless to stop the advance of Nigel Farage.
We last saw this weariness with the status quo and desire for radical change in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher won election. Back then, the crisis facing Britain was economic and existential – would we continue to allow the trades union and the tired accommodations of the post-war consensus to continue sapping away at Britain’s vitality until there was nothing left but an impoverished, third-rate, failed socialist state.
In 2014, many Britons (save UKIP) do not see an existential threat, but there is nonetheless a crisis of ennui, disengagement, democratic illegitimacy and the return of that 1970s fatalism that says Britain can no longer prosper without pooling political sovereignty with Europe on the unfavourable terms of the vanquished.
The Newark by-election campaign is revealing exactly what the revamped Conservative Party machine and ground game is capable of when the Tories really, really want something. Thursday’s result will give the first hint as to whether this will be enough to stop UKIP in 2015.
UPDATE: The Telegraph’s James Kirkup appears to be in agreement with this assessment. He writes:
A win in Newark would show that the Tory election machinery is in good nick – or at least that a professional party campaign apparatus can trump a band of amateurs with more conviction than organisation.
And is that the same thing as winning the argument? Have a quick glance at the national opinion polls: the Tory number is hovering around 33, with Labour a couple of points ahead. Remember 2010? Those figures were CON 36 LAB 29. And that still wasn’t enough for a Tory majority.
A win in Newark will solidify Tory optimism about the general election, but it won’t change the awkward fact of national politics: the party still has a long, long way to go to win that majority.