Toxic immigration issue leaves Tories outflanked by UKIP once again

Michael Fallon's "misspoken" interview, in which he sympathised with towns being "swamped by huge numbers of migrants", and his subsequent "clarifications" demonstrate just how toxic the issue of immigration has become for the Conservative Party.

Immigration is a particular headache for Tory strategists, argues Nick Williams
Immigration is a particular headache for Tory strategists, argues Nick Williams
It also shows how UKIP has changed the terms of debate within British politics and will, despite predictions of a peak in the European elections, continue to have a significant impact right up to the general election.

Opinion polls now regularly show UKIP support sitting at around 17 per cent. 

That level of support, if maintained, is very likely to win UKIP at least four to five MPs in May. 

More importantly of course is the number of seats where it will prevent the main two parties from winning, making accurate predictions for the general election almost impossible.

The impact of UKIP’s popularity with the voters is most potent when it comes to the rhetoric and comms strategy of the other parties.

Contrary to the general public’s view that immigration is never talked about, it comes up as the major political issue with dull regularity, and has done for at least a hundred years. 

Each time previously, the settled view of the main political parties has been to engage rhetoric but little action on the issue, knowing that there is nowhere else for voters to go. 

That election strategy for both parties is now unsustainable.

The availability of an alternative for voters to voice their fury over immigration is a particular catastrophe for the Conservative Party. 

Never before has the party been outbid on immigration. 

Now that UKIP has tapped into this source of dissatisfaction, it leaves Conservative strategists with a real headache, and desperate for a solution on how to deal with it.

The failure to develop an acceptable and winning solution for the Conservative Party has resulted in a huge amount of frustration that runs throughout the party, from constituency associations right up to the Cabinet table.  

Downing Street’s instruction that Fallon execute a full mea culpa was always going to infuriate the Tory right – and that is precisely what has happened. 

That fury is yet again directed at the Prime Minister, and not at Fallon – in a period when hopefuls are eyeing the prize of the leadership post-Cameron, Fallon’s positioning may have gained him some brownie points with an increasingly outspoken membership.

Cameron’s problem is that he cannot in reality attempt to outflank UKIP on the immigration issue.  
UKIP can say what it likes, it is a protest party; Cameron is in Government and cannot, as his intervention on EU migration and the subsequent rebuttal from Chancellor Merkel demonstrates. 

His failure to recognise this fact time and again, stemming back to his speech offering a referendum, has been one of his greatest strategic failures. 

Conservative strategists know that governments are formed by taking the middle ground in British politics but find it an impossible task and so inevitably drift rightwards, playing squarely into UKIP’s hands. 

Allowing political frustrations to spill over into the media from a senior politician was a strategic mistake for the Conservative Party. 

Senior politicians from all parties have failed to set out the rational and pragmatic case for immigration within the context of globalisation, pandering to the loud voices on the fringes of the debate. 

Until the Conservative Party works out a long-term strategy to shape the debate on its own terms, the party will continue to be riven on the issue; watching as its chances of a second term slip through its fingers.

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