By Dan Hannan, MEP for South East England
You know those ‘hard-working families’ politicians are always going on about? Well, Maria Hutchings is as neat an exemplar as you’ll find. The Conservative candidate for Eastleigh is, like many mothers-of-four, busy, breathless, and constantly struggling with the bills. She is one of those lucky women whose cheerfulness is infectious: it’s hard to spend an hour in her company without feeling happier. She is deeply engaged with her local community, active in all sorts of voluntary schemes and charities. When canvassing, she tends pick up constituency casework as if she were already an MP, taking up people’s problems with various local agencies, and seeing them through. Oh, and she happens to believe, in common with most British people, that we’d be better off out of the EU.
Maria, in short, is a dream candidate for any party: energetic, patriotic and committed to her neighbourhood. If every Conservative MP had been like her, Ukip would never have needed to exist in the first place.
Her candidature creates a quandary for that party. I count some Eastleigh Ukip activists among my friends, not least their amiable candidate from 2010, Ray Finch, a regular on this blog’s comment threads. While a few Ukip supporters see their vote simply as a way to flick two fingers at the world in general, many more are patriots who went outside the established parties because they could see that the EU was wrecking British democracy.
Will these voters now put a Euro-fanatic Liberal Democrat into the House of Commons rather than someone who signed the People’s Pledge a year ago, would vote to come out, and has campaigned strongly, albeit in temperate language, for stricter immigration controls? For that is the choice. The Conservative and Lib Dem candidates are neck-and-neck; Labour and Ukip are nearly 20 points behind them.
Eastleigh is a forerunner of the dilemma that Ukip supporters in most marginal constituencies will face at the next general election. Ever since its foundation two decades ago, Ukip has elevated one objective above all others, namely to leave the EU following a referendum. In no small measure thanks to that party, the referendum policy has now been taken up by the Conservatives. But it will be delivered only if there is a majority of MPs on the green benches prepared to vote for it. It would be a paradox of cosmic proportions if Ukip became the reason that no such majority could be formed.
I’m not going to rehearse the case for an accommodation between Ukip and the Tories again. I’ve done so often enough before, and the decision is, in any case, above my pay grade.
In Eastleigh, however, there is a strong case for Ukip supporters to vote tactically. Two candidates are standing on similar platforms; but only one of them stands a chance of winning.
Imagine that Ukip, in a grand gesture of goodwill, announced that it was withdrawing its candidate and backing Maria.
Such a move would have several consequences, all of them good for the cause of national independence, and most of them also tactically advantageous for Ukip.
First, and most obviously, it would mean one more vote in Parliament for withdrawal.
Second, it would impress voters. ‘Golly’, they would say, ‘these Ukip people really mean what they say about putting country before party.’
Third, it would put pressure on the Tories to reciprocate. If my party was dismissive, it would be we who looked small-minded, and voters would react accordingly.
Fourth, it would encourage other Conservative candidates in marginal seats to come out as anti-EU, and thus boost the ‘No’ campaign.
Fifth, it would facilitate an eventual reconciliation on the Centre-Right, which would, I hope, make it easier for younger Ukip supporters to remain in public life after the referendum has made their party redundant.
Sixth, it would be an acknowledgment that Ukip’s policy had succeeded. ‘The better we do, the more we’ll force the other parties to adopt our policies,’ Ukip supporters like to tell me. Well, it has worked. What more do you want?
Seventh, and most important, it is the right thing to do. Friends in Ukip often say that their party is unique in that its success is not an end in itself, but a means to an end, that end being national independence. I believe them. Here is their chance to behave accordingly.