By Hugo Dixon
(Hugo Dixon is Editor-at-Large, Reuters News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
The UK Independence Party will not come close to winning Britain’s next general election. The populist anti-Europe, anti-immigration party may not even win a single seat, despite last week’s surge in English local elections where it won nearly a quarter of the vote – running a close third to Labour and the Conservatives. That’s how the maths of Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system works.
Nevertheless, the rise of UKIP could have profound consequences for British politics and business – in particular, for the UK’s relationship with the European Union. This is because UKIP is mainly taking votes away from David Cameron’s Conservatives. A calculation by Sky News suggested that, if the local election results were translated into a general election, Labour would win an overall majority. Even though UKIP might win no seats itself, its popularity would damage Cameron’s prospects for reelection in 2015.
A key question will be how the Conservatives respond to this challenge. The party’s right-wing is already advocating a shift to the right to prevent more defections to UKIP. David Davis, who lost out to Cameron in the battle to lead to Conservatives in 2005, advocated an early referendum on whether Britain should quit the EU. Cameron has promised such a plebiscite but only after the next election – and implicitly only if he wins that election.
Other Conservatives will be arguing that it will be folly to tack to the right and leave the centre completely open to Labour. Holding a referendum on Europe before the election is not even practical politics, as the Conservatives are in coalition with the pro-European LibDems who oppose such a vote.