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Dissatisfied Defectors Caution Conservatives

natalie hamill, 7 March 2012

By Lucy Hatton

This weekend, Roger Helmer MEP announced his defection from the Conservative Party to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Although many will have been shocked by his decision, others have long thought that the politician’s views, especially those concerning the EU, are more in line with UKIP than the Conservatives. In fact, Helmer’s defection is just one in a long succession of instances that serve as warnings to the Conservative Party about the consequences of the positions they take and the compromises they make on issues of significance.

EXIT

Helmer has clearly been unhappy with the direction in which the Conservative Party has been moving for several years. He recently posted on ConservativeHome ‘Twenty Questions for Conservatives’, highlighting the twenty areas in which his views are at odds with those of the current Party leadership, and has since written that “UKIP is closer than the Tory Party to the conservative principles and values that brought many of us into politics in the first place.” When considering how he has spoken about issues such as climate change, immigration, education and of course Europe over the last few years, the divergence between his views and official Conservative policy has been progressively widening.

Furthermore, Helmer is certainly not the first Conservative politician to take the plunge and join UKIP, and I doubt he will be the last. The original (and some may say the best) example is of course Nigel Farage MEP, founding member of UKIP. Farage left the Conservative Party in 1992 following John Major’s signing of the Maastricht Treaty, and has been a key figure in the British EU-sceptical movement ever since. Then there was Bob Spink, who has the accolade of having been the only Member of Parliament for UKIP in history after defecting from the Conservatives in 2008, although he now denies that he was ever actually a UKIP member. The biggest Conservative Party donor in history was next, Stuart Wheeler, who since 2011 has been UKIP’s Treasurer. These are just some of the more high profile cases; no doubt many members of the public have also made this switch based on the Conservative approach to Europe, among other issues.

Repeatedly appearing in this week’s EU-related UK news media is Alexandra Swann, the 23 year old former National Deputy Chairman of Conservative Future, who has been rocketed into the limelight following her speech at the UKIP Spring Conference in Skegness at the weekend. She has since declared that her transition from the Conservative Party to UKIP is partly down to her concern that “Cameron appears afraid to step out of favour with his Euro-loving colleagues,” by which she means the Liberal Democrats in the coalition government. This view is unfortunately consistent with the perception of Cameron’s approach to the EU held by many politicians and commentators.

One of these is Mark Pritchard MP, who has also announced that he is to leave his position as the Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party International Office, primarily due to the Party’s stance on Europe and immigration. Mr Pritchard was one of the 81 MPs who controversially defied the party whip in October 2011 over the issue of a referendum on EU membership. What are the chances that more of these whip-defying MPs will follow suit? There is clearly a strong element of dissatisfaction with the Conservative Party’s EU stance, from the general public to the longstanding politicians, such as Helmer, which the Party will have to deal with and rectify if it is to continue in power.

Unfortunately for the Conservative Party they are stuck in a catch-22 situation with no obvious solution. The Party has taken this ‘soft’ approach to Europe because of the influence of its Lib Dem coalition partners, who are there because the Conservative Party failed to win an absolute majority of seats at the 2010 election. This approach is causing Conservative Party supporters, members and politicians to look elsewhere for a position on Europe that matches their own, potentially decreasing the parliamentary majority of the Conservative Party. This will result in them again looking to form compromises with the Lib Dems on further issues of importance to voters in order to continue in government, in turn causing more defections. This cycle needs to be broken if the Conservatives want to maintain their position in Government and ensure future electoral success.

In the meantime, their loss is UKIP’s gain.

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