A pact with angry old Ukip would be disastrous for the Conservative party | Nick Herbert

Europe is not a major issue for voters. We must focus on the things that matter most: the economy and living standards

"Tories: back to the workhouse." So screamed the front page of today's Daily Mirror, the self-described "intelligent tabloid". It's a commonplace that politicians are divorced from the real world. But there's no bigger divide than between the public, who see for themselves the effects of excessive welfarism and foot the bills, and metropolitan commentators, who regard all welfare provision as beyond criticism.

For too long growing public concern about excessive levels of immigration and welfare dependency was ignored by mainstream parties. It is partly from this void that Ukip has risen. It is a mistake to believe that the party is some kind of provisional wing of shire conservatism. Ukip is appealing to voters from across the political spectrum.

The correct response for the Conservative party is to address the concerns of people who are anxious about their jobs and living standards. That means distinguishing between disaffected voters and the demagogues who are appealing to them. We need to speak for people who are worried about their future, not against them. Policies to control immigration, reform welfare and reduce taxes aren't a sudden response to an insurgent minority party. They are core to a government that puts itself on the side – to coin the Conservative party's conference slogan – of hard-working people.

But there are far more voters to win back who have moved to Labour, or away from all parties, than to Ukip. That is one reason why the suggestion of a pact with the minority party is so misguided. Nigel Farage complains he is regarded as a "plague carrier" by Tory high command because he is refused entry to the Conservative party conference. But it would indeed be political death for Conservatives to open the door to him.

The first obstacle is a glaringly obvious policy difference. Ukip want to leave the EU come what may. That is not Conservative party policy, which is to renegotiate Britain's terms of membership and put a better deal to the public in a referendum. And while Ukip now offers a small menu of populist, frequently incredible policies, its gravitational pull is to talk ceaselessly about Europe, which would be disastrous for Conservatives when Europe is relatively low on voters' concerns.

More than a decade ago, the Conservatives campaigned on a platform to save the pound, a highly popular policy, yet the party made no electoral gain in the 2001 general election. The public wanted to hear about the economy and public services while we talked to ourselves about Brussels. We must not make that mistake again.

There are other reasons to reject Farage's overtures. Ukip is an angry party. It oozes a loathing of contemporary Britain. It is backward-looking and isolationist. A bargain with Ukip would be Faustian, the opportunity of wider appeal sold for illusory political gain. Like two bitter old bores drinking together in a pub, no one else would want to talk to us.

It's true that the Conservative party needs to reach out beyond its core to obtain a winning share of the national vote, but the overture should be to electors in the north, to women, to ethnic minorities, to a generation who are working ever harder for seemingly less reward.

This is the grand coalition that Conservatives must forge. At its most powerful the party has appealed beyond the shires to the cities, to those who want to get on as much as those who have already succeeded, to the young as well as the elderly. It has captured an optimism about our country, rewarded aspiration and challenged privilege.

The spring in the step of Conservative activists this week comes from a sense we are winning the big argument about the economy. Ultimately a debate about living standards will run best for the party which can offer a credible path to economic growth, jobs and rising incomes.

Conservatives should realise that we have a powerful hand to play. We are setting out policies which can speak to anxious voters and win them back. We should not be deterred by shrill claims that to address the electorate's biggest concerns, such as welfare dependency, is to abandon the middle ground. Nor should we be spooked into any kind of deal with a minority party that would drive moderate voters away.


Nick Herbert

The GuardianTramp

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