UKIP double-bluff leaves government floundering on Syria refugees

Paul Hoskins

The moment UKIP’s Nigel Farage called for Syrian refugees to be allowed into the UK, it became an inevitability, not because he waved his magic fairy wand but because he drew attention to the inconvenient truth that, unlike many other countries, Britain is simply not doing its bit to provide a safe haven to people caught up in what the United Nations has called ‘one of the largest refugee exoduses in recent history’. Here we are just a few weeks later and, sure as eggs is eggs, David Cameron has announced that he is now “open minded” on Syrian refugees. Even the most desultory Westminster watcher will spot this for what it is: thinly-veiled code for “I’m trying to find a way to back down on this as gracefully as possible because I know this is a battle I am not going to win”.

It was always going to be a lost battle because the scale of the humanitarian crisis; the basic sense of humanity with which Britons are generally blessed; and our country’s proud history of providing a safe haven to the persecuted and the dispossessed, dictate that we must play our part. Dare we risk history concluding we didn’t?

I wasn’t the only one to see this coming. When Farage’s call to let in refugees caught the government napping during the post-Christmas lull, Conservative MP Mark Pritchard said he expected the government would be forced to change its mind. “Clearly we cannot take all the refugees but I think we should play our part as a country – still an open-hearted, compassionate country – to do the right thing,” he told the BBC. “There’s real suffering and we need to do our bit along with the rest of the international community.”

Lebanon is currently playing host to over 800,000 registered Syrian refugees, according to UN data, and the tally in Turkey is approaching 600,000. Jordan may have as many as 600,000 too. In total, 100,000 people are believed to have been killed and well over 2 million have escaped to neighbouring countries. Millions more have fled their homes within Syria itself.

It is not that Britain is doing nothing or that Cameron’s administration is being wantonly inhumane. The government points out it has pledged £500 million – not far off that contributed by all other EU states combined – to the Syria crisis. But is it just me, or is there something rather unseemly about just throwing money at a problem and hoping it will go away? Doesn’t it somehow give us an excuse not to confront the reality of the problem head on? Certainly it wouldn’t seem to tally with the government’s “Big Society” ideal of fixing problems through practical volunteering rather than cash hand-outs.

Besides, if we’re willing to throw half a billion pounds in cash at the problem, why wouldn’t we also take in the few hundred of the most vulnerable refugees the UN is asking us to help directly? Could it be that the decision not to accept refugees has been driven by political expediency, or more precisely fear of UKIP, rather than by common-sense, pragmatism and compassion?

How deliciously ironic that in trying not to give ammunition to UKIP by letting in Syrian immigrants, the government may have played directly into its hands. If it weren’t for the fact that people are dying, it would seem like a hilariously contrived episode of Yes, Minister. You can picture the scene. Seasoned Foreign Office mandarins point out to their political masters that letting in a few hundred refugees would cost us almost nothing, make us look good abroad and save lives but are overruled by their nervy, opinion-poll-fixated spads. Farage presumably followed his gut, which told him it was indefensible not to let in refugees from a humanitarian crisis that has turfed millions of people out of their homes. By contrast, our mainstream political parties seem to have been blinded by fear of UKIP and opinion polls telling them they need to crack down on immigration.

Mr Farage has, deliberately or not, pulled off a masterful double bluff that has left the government floundering. “Now who looks like the nasty party?” he will no doubt ask repeatedly in the coming months. When the full government u-turn comes, as it inevitably will, it is going to be a particularly delicious victory for UKIP. It is also going to be pretty good news for those few hundred refugees.

Some, including Conservative MP Andrew Brigden, have accused those who support the UN request of “political tokenism”. Somewhat depressingly they question what the point is of saving a few hundred people when millions are at risk. Presumably these naysayers have no truck with the Talmud’s wise counsel, made famous by the film Schindler’s List, that ‘Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world’. Imagine if we all shirked our individual responsibility to save a single life? That would be a whole lot of lives lost.

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Some lessons from Eastleigh for the Tory party

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Giles Marshall 7.37am

That the Liberal Democrats won at all is a minor triumph and let no-one tell you otherwise.

This is a party mired in a truly demeaning scandal, whose media operation looked utterly out of shape and whose leader was subject to the sort of scrutiny usually reserved for pariahs and criminals.

Add to this the fact that Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems enjoy the support of not a single major media outlet, but can count on the active hostility of all of them, and this really does start to look like an extraordinary triumph.

No leader since John Major has received quite such a pasting from the right-wing press, and even then some papers maintained a veneer of regard for the party Major was leading.

No such exceptionalism exists for Nick Clegg. Any triumph he gains, any achievement he chalks up, is and always shall be done in the face of an extraordinary hostility from the media.

So how did the Liberal Democrats win in Eastleigh?  I can offer two reasons.  Number one – their organisation on the ground is excellent.  They have a large number of councillors and activists in Eastleigh and they used feet on the ground to considerable effect.  In the age of big media and social network politics, localism still counts and a motivated ground force can still make the difference.  This is what can rescue the Lib Dems from oblivion in any general election.

Number two – they faced the split opposition of the right, and herein lies a serious problem for the Tories. Eastleigh was a Conservative seat not so very long ago, held by a middle-ground Tory of cautiously pro-European opinions who tragically was subject to personal demons.

In this by-election, conscious of the UKIP threat, the local party fielded Maria Hutchings, who has forthright views on immigration, is a determined Eurosceptic and would have been no Cameron patsy if elected to Parliament. She is the dream candidate for the Tory right.

And she lost. Not marginally. She lost substantially, coming in third behind the party whose image she tried to emulate and whose implicit endorsement she tried to achieve.  

The Tory party will try to garner all sorts of lessons from this defeat and most of them will be wrong. The one thing that should stand out is the reality that the right-wing vote in this country is too small to permit of two competing parties. It is arguably too small to permit of even one successful party.

The Tory party’s split identity is becoming ever more harmful, but that is nothing to the rump it will become if the lesson drawn from Eastleigh is voters desire a more unvarnished brand of Tory rightism.

It seems the party will never be right-wing and Eurosceptic enough to appease UKIP supporters without alienating the crucial centrist vote that all parties need to sustain themselves in government. This is a simple matter of electoral arithmetic.

As for UKIP, they should enjoy their triumph. They didn’t win, but they scored their best by-election result to date.

However, it isn’t quite as great a triumph as Nigel Farage is trumpeting. At a time when both governing parties are massively unpopular, this party of protest failed to wrest a seat from them.

In their heyday, the Social Democratic Party – a party of protest that sought to extract voters from the Labour Party in much the same way as UKIP does from the Tories – managed to pull off extraordinary by-election victories in both Conservative and Labour seats. They did it when the governing Tories were pursuing unpopular economic measures. And they never managed to translate their extraordinary by-election success into general election success, descending into third party misery each time.  

UKIP’s achievement is weaker than the old SDP’s. If Farage’s lot can’t win a seat like Eastleigh in a by-election, with protest votes aplenty, then they shan’t win anything in a general election.

Eastleigh has produced a victor, whatever the gloom that the national pundits may be pronouncing for all parties. That victor, to the dismay of Conservatives, is their coalition partner. It will keep the coalition going, but it offers no hope to the dominant party.

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall

If you’re in Eastleigh and you’re reading this, do something worthwhile and VOTE HUTCHINGS today

Craig Barrett 11.02am

Another Thursday, another by-election. Following the resignation in disgrace of Chris Huhne, voters are today going to the polls in a constituency that has been a tightly fought battleground between the Tories and the Lib Dems since the previous by-election, in 1994. A Lib Dem majority of fewer than 4,000 votes belies a seat where the Lib Dems have a very active party machine and hold all of the local council seats.

Needless to say, all parties in contention have thrown everything at it.  UKIP’s sole spokesman, Nigel Farage, declined to stand again in the seat which he fought in 1994, presumably thinking that he couldn’t win and to fail to win once again would be a humiliation too far.

The Labour party has John O’Farrell, former joke-writer for Gordon Brown, who has been roundly criticised for his comments lamenting the fact that the IRA failed to murder Lady Thatcher in Brighton in 1984.

The Lib Dems have selected a local councillor, Mike Thornton, who, in best Liberal Democrat tradition, has voted in favour of housing developments which his leaflets suggests he opposes.

Our candidate, Maria Hutchings, is a working mother with four kids, a genuine local campaigner whose campaign has been masterminded by the energetic, relentless, indomitable Michael Fabricant, whose endless stream of tweeted photographs shows the entire Parliamentary party (and their cousins and their aunts, not to mention their dogs) has visited the constituency to ensure that Maria’s message of being a local campaigner who can be trusted has been strongly made to every voter. I haven’t been down myself but my reading of her message is that she has sound Conservative views and will be a hard-worker for her constituents. The race appears to be too close to call.

My suspicion is that the biggest winner out of all of this will be SouthWest Trains.  Nevertheless, if you’re in Eastleigh and you are reading this, do something worthwhile today: VOTE HUTCHINGS.

Follow Craig on Twitter @mrsteeduk

Who are UKIP?

Andrew Thorpe-Apps 3.57pm

The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has been suffering from internal tensions for some time. The party is fundamentally divided between those with a socially conservative outlook, and those with a more libertarian perspective.

On top of this, and as can been seen with all political parties, there is an increasing generational split. As an example, roughly 60 per cent of the UK population now supports gay marriage. When under-30s are polled on the issue, support is closer to 80 per cent.

UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, has actively encouraged the party’s libertarian label. He has advocated drug decriminalisation, opposed anti-tobacco legislation, and supported the right of local people to decide whether fox hunting should be permitted.

In many policy areas, however, UKIP look far more like right-wing populists. They seek to double the UK prison population, increase the police budget, and spend more on national defence. These policies, though perfectly reasonable in themselves, are hard to reconcile with the commonly understood definition of libertarianism.

UKIP officially supports Civil Partnerships, but not any change in the law that would allow gay marriage. Yet this policy does not sit comfortably with many in UKIP’s youth-wing, Young Independence.

Olly Neville - the recently elected Chairman of Young Independence - was sacked for airing his personal views on both gay marriage and the significance of European Elections. This led to a ‘Twitter storm’, with many lambasting the party leadership’s authoritarian approach.

The so-called #Ollyshambles debacle is all the more ironic since Nigel Farage has stated that he wanted a party of free thinkers: ”I’d rather have a party of eccentrics than bland, ghastly people.”

To a large degree, the sacking of Olly Neville has been given more publicity than it deserves. UKIP is a party with no Westminster seats that relies heavily on the charisma and popularity of its leader.

The Neville affair is important insofar as it brings to the surface the deep divisions within UKIP. For many years, UKIP was a single issue party. Its activists were happy to rant about the excesses of the EU, but when it came to domestic policies, they drew a blank.

More recently, the party has developed a comprehensive manifesto, covering all policy areas. This has made the party more mainstream and more electable. Opinion polls suggest UKIP is headed in the right direction electorally (achieving 16 per cent in recent polls). Yet this has also, necessarily, opened the party up to internal debate and division.

The problem for Mr Farage is that his message about UKIP being an open party that encourages free thinking is being discredited. UKIP cannot maintain its libertarian image when members are sacked for espousing libertarian views.

UKIP is also in danger of alienating its young activists - those expected to be on the ground campaigning and, in years to come, standing for election themselves. A string of Young Independence members have resigned from their elected positions over #Ollyshambles, with more expected to follow suit. This is an extremely unhealthy position for the party to be in, to say nothing of the negative publicity.

If UKIP does not put its house in order quickly, it risks living up to David Cameron’s comments that the party is just a ”bunch of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists.”

UKIP cannot be both socially conservative and libertarian - serious decisions must be made about which direction the party is to take.


Follow Andrew on Twitter @AG_ThorpeApps

Why would the Tories form a pact with a party that’s largely B-rate, erratic and berserk?

Craig Barrett 3.59pm

This whole hoo-hah over an electoral pact with UKIP is a pile of old nonsense. The Conservative party does not need a pact with them; it needs to tackle them head on and dispose of them (like our other opponents).

First of all, UKIP has zero MPs and thus zero influence.  In order to make any jot of difference to this country’s relationship with the EU, they would need to defeat all three hundred or so of our MPs and cobble together the rest from the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party.  We can conclude safely enough that this is not going to happen. One of David Cameron’s failings is in taking a line to the electorate and sticking to it, but this is one he must be clear on: UKIP is a wasted protest vote that will make no dent on the electoral map.

Secondly, there is no sensible evidence whatsoever that shows UKIP takes more votes from the Tories than it does from other political parties.  I have said it before and I’ll say it again: UKIP is a home for the disaffected.  It is a franchise organisation of people in search of somewhere to go because their views no longer fit in the mainstream. That or they’ve been de-selected.  If their activists didn’t have UKIP, they’d soon find somewhere else from where to campaign.

Thirdly, UKIP is a vanity organisation with merely one recognisable face – when have you seen anyone else represent UKIP on Question Time?  So much for their current claim to be the third party. Its leader and former Tory activist, Nigel Farage, is clever and charismatic but ultimately powerless. Moreover, he is lazy, preferring to make blue-moon grandstanding speeches attacking Herman van Rompuy than turn up to work on a regular basis.  He has one of the worst attendance records of any MEP.

Fourthly, a pact with UKIP would be a golden gift to our opponents because it permits them to paint the Conservative party as irascibly right-wing.  The Liberal Democrats might be utterly wrong about Europe but that shall not stop them representing their Europhilia as “standing up for Britain in Europe”, and our alliance with UKIP as a coalition of the frothing mad.

What’s more, has anyone ever bothered to read UKIP’s policies (or those that exist)? They are ludicrous, with even more fantastical views on fiscal power than the Labour party.

Britain would be better off out of the EU because it is an enormous black hole for our cash, propping up increasingly inefficient foreign countries and a bureaucracy that revels in excess (Chateau Angelus for a summit meeting, anyone?).  Yet we are where we are.  In Europe, for the moment at least.

Elections are won from the centre ground, not on the fringes, but that should not stop Mr Cameron from adopting a sensible yet firm European policy and above all getting the very best deal for Britain. That is largely his goal and was certainly the write up he has received following last week’s EU budget negotiations.  Evidently, the very best hope of a good deal from Europe is to re-elect a Conservative government.  If UKIP were serious about our position in Europe, that is what they would campaign for.

Voting for UKIP, on the other hand, can only ensure the election of pro-EU MPs.  What is allowing UKIP to gain an apparent foothold in the country at large is not their people, performance or policies, which are largely B-rate, erratic and berserk; it is a perception that the Conservative party is drifting without a coherent European policy.

Fix that and there’s no need even to entertain something so abhorrent as an electoral pact with UKIP.

Follow Craig on Twitter @mrsteeduk