It's easy to see why UKIP - and Nigel - are laughing now
As politicians, we have all done it and I am no exception; the snappy off-the-cuff remark, which seems to match the needs of the moment, but which comes back to haunt us. David Cameron's description back in 2006 of UKIP, as a party of "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists" must, therefore strike him, in the light of that party's victory at yesterday's Eastleigh by-election, as particularly unfortunate.
And a UKIP victory it was; winning or losing, by 1,770 votes in such circumstances is irrelevant. This performance by what is by national standards a tiny party is breathtaking and any Conservative MP who thinks that this can just be dismissed as "mid-term blues" has been in Parliament too long.
Speaking immediately after the count, the UKIP leader, Nigel Farrage, accused the Tories of handing victory to the Liberal Democrats "by splitting the Conservative vote" and behind the sheer cheek of that remark lurks the essential truth. The UKIP vote is indeed a "splitting vote". Its effect in the General Election in 2010 was to deprive the Conservative Party of victory; its effect in 2001 was to deprive me of my seat.
In both those elections, UKIP could fairly make the point that, whatever the views of individual MPs like myself, the Conservative leadership of the day was only prepared to be rude about Europe; a referendum on future membership was out of the question.
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But that has changed completely and while, as a member of the Conservative Party, I give all credit to David Cameron for bringing about the change, it was the UKIP leader, Nigel Farrage who forced his hand. Now far from resisting a referendum on Europe, David Cameron has said that should the Conservatives be returned with an overall majority at the next election, there will be a referendum, albeit on renegotiated terms
Yes, there is still the difference that Mr Cameron believes we would always be better off in Europe, while UKIP believes we could never be, but that does not matter.
The key point is this. UKIP wants a referendum on the EU and the David Cameron is committed to one.
But, say the UKIP ultras, Cameron cannot be trusted. He might change his mind. Well I do trust David Cameron. I would not remain in the Conservative Party if I did not, but UKIP do not have to take my word for it. If, in the future, Mr Cameron attempted to renege on such an unambiguous assurance, he would be literally hounded from office.
But suppose the Conservatives lose the next election, which, at present is the more likely outcome, would a Labour government, with or without LibDem support, offer a referendum?
Of course not!
And if at some unspecified time in the future, the Conservatives were to win an overall majority once again, would the offer of a referendum still be open?
The only certainty as we speak is that a Conservative victory at the next election secures that referendum while the intervention of UKIP at anything approaching the performance that it achieved last night at Eastliegh will deprive the Conservative Party of that victory.
In short, it is in the interests of both the UKIP and the Conservative Party, that UKIP should not oppose Conservative candidates at the next election. Far from requiring any concession of principle by either leader, reaching such an understanding is the only principled position they can take. So why isn't it happening?
I will hazard a guess. I have a high regard for Nigel Farrage as a politician and a man. He is not a "closet racist". I believe he is in fact a "closet Conservative". He is, I understand, married to a German lady, but he believes passionately that the laws which govern this country's destiny, be they left-wing, right-wing, or centrist, should be decided by our own sovereign Parliament.
Mr Farrage can probably understand why the jibe was first made; what he grossly resents is that it is demonstrably unfair, but has never been withdrawn. I dare say that UKIP has its fair share of fruitcakes, nutters and racists: any MP of any party who thinks that he has none is just not spending enough time in his constituency. Yet it is not the fringe that defines UKIP any more than it defines the Conservative Party; what defines them both is their commitment to their country.
One of these party leaders needs to telephone the other. It really does not matter which, but I would like to think that when the dust has settled, Mr Cameron realises that it is more appropriate that he makes the first move.
I've got it. Mr Cameron was misquoted.
Yes, I think that would do it nicely…