Richard North, 28/11/2012  

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All of a sudden, it's important. David Cameron has affirmed that, some time before Christmas, he will deliver his long-awaited speech setting out the Conservative Party's current thinking on the situation in "Europe".

From a backwater issue, membership of the European Union has thus climbed up the political agenda, and what happens over the next few months may well determine the Tory fate at the general election in 2015. It may also determine, over a longer period, whether we get out of the EU or are committed to a slow death shackled to a corpse.

One of the obstacles between the Tories and electoral success, though, is UKIP, and while the chances of the party picking up seat in Westminster is slight, the "UKIP effect" – which I coined in 2005 - is real. In the 2010 election, UKIP possibly took 23 Tory scalps. If we include seats where a combined UKIP/BNP vote exceeded the majority of the Labour or Lib-Dim winners, over the Conservatives, the casualties rise to 41.

In theory, the higher profile of UKIP means that it presents an even greater effect to the Tories – but politics doesn't always work like that. Undoubtedly, many people who have been prepared to support UKIP have done so on the basis of a very sketchy knowledge of its policies and personalities. Arguably, the more people know about UKIP, the less they will like it.

But, as we pointed out earlier, one way UKIP could give itself an edge is to come up with a credible EU exit plan. But, in getting there, the party is increasingly handicapped by a vociferous group of activists who oppose any movement towards a more rational plan.

One of the leaders of this "pack" is Torquil Dick-Erikson. Yet, reluctant to take part in an open debate on a publicly accessible forum, Erikson continues to hide his light under the bushell of a closed e-mail group, his views bobbing up into the open occasionally as the odd missive breaks cover.

With several e-mail groups in circulation, and not all the responses taking in all the players, this is rather like trying keep track of a shoal of tiddlers in a muddy pond. However, when one of their number asks why we are so "obsessed" with Article 50, this rather demonstrates where the problems lie. If you have to ask, you are not part of the game.

Expressing it more forcefully is Dan Hodges in the Daily Telegraph. In relative terms, he says, "UKIP have no money, no infrastructure and no activists. They have no organisational expertise, no strategy expertise and no policy expertise".

"They punch above their weight in the media, but that’s because much of the media is instinctively sympathetic to their agenda, not because of any presentational acumen", he says. "Not so long ago UKIP's idea of a communications strategy was to wind up Robert Kilroy-Silk and let him go".

That's a bit unkind. Kilroy-Silk was always a loose cannon, even if he was badly handled. But, on the issues of strategy and policy expertise, Hodges is spot on. And just to confirm this, yesterday we heard from "the office of Nigel Farage MEP, Brussels" that the UKIP leader "agrees whole-heartedly on the use of UDI rather than Art 50".

This lack of political acumen bodes ill for the party and rather supports the Hodges contention that they are not surfing a wave but standing in a rockpool, watching the tide go out. A minority party, with few resources, needs an edge if it is to break through to become mainstream.

Some assert that this is already the case, but the fact is that, with diminishing turnouts, the mainstream is represented by the growing band of people who see no point in voting.

In competing for the favours of a diminishing band of voters, however, Mr Farage benefits form the Conservative Party proving to be inept when it comes to devising a credible European strategy. Between the inept and the inexpert, there is little to choose, so some people are still prepared to give Farage a punt.

That, for David Cameron, makes it all the more important – in his terms – that he gets his Europe speech right. So far, the auguries are not good, but his political career is at stake here. While Farage might survive his own stupidity, as he usually does, Cameron's failure at the general election will create another ex-leader of the Conservative Party.

Maybe it is not only UKIP that is standing in that rockpool.


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