Tom Richmond: Doing the electoral splits can lead to political pain

Olympic gold medalist Victoria Pendleton addresses the room during the Conservative Party annual conference 2014 at the ICC in Birmingham. PIC: PA
Olympic gold medalist Victoria Pendleton addresses the room during the Conservative Party annual conference 2014 at the ICC in Birmingham. PIC: PA
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MY advice to United Kingdom Independence Party supporters after another turbulent week in British politics: Be careful what you wish for.

It comes after the defections of Tory backbenchers Douglas Carswell and the ironically-named Mark Reckless to Nigel Farage’s party overshadowed the Tory pre-election conference – and the ambition of its plans to start rewarding strivers and savers at the expense of society’s shirkers.

This caution stems from the experience of covering the former Devon parliamentary seat of Teignbridge – an emblematic South West constituency that depended on tourism and farming for its income. It also includes Dawlish, the resort that saw its railway line washed into the sea earlier this year, and the remnants of the area’s fishing industry.

Geography lesson over, now to the politics. This was a seemingly safe Tory seat and the party’s one-time vice chairman Patrick Nicholls, a renowned Eurosceptic, withstood the Labour landslide of 1997 by 281-votes from the Liberal Democrats.

The problem for the Conservatives came four years later when Jimmy Goldsmith’s Referendum Party – the precursor to Ukip – chose to field a candidate against Nicholls.

This split the centre-right vote – the 2,269 votes accrued by the Referendum Party candidate were sufficient to enable a pro-European Liberal Democrat MP, Richard Younger-Ross, to prevail over Nicholls by 3,011 votes.

On this arithmetic, there is every likelihood that Nicholls would have been re-elected – albeit narrowly – if he had been given a clear run.

The irony was that those who complained loudest of all about their new Europhile MP’s willingness to embrace the European Union – this was the period when Tony Blair was committed to Britain joining the euro – were those former Conservative supporters who had switched allegiance to the Referendum Party in a fit of pique.

And this is precisely what Eurosceptics are risking if they decide to punish David Cameron by voting Ukip; it will increase, significantly, the likelihood of Ed Miliband forming the next government with just 35 per cent of the vote.

Up to 20 Tory-held seats, it is calculated, have the potential to switch hands next May because of the fracturing of the centre-right vote – enough to hand the keys to 10 Downing Street to the man who forgot to mention the deficit or EU migration policy in his conference speech.

Are Ukip supporters seriously saying that Britain will be better off being run by a party that is economically bankrupt on the deficit, immigration policy and welfare reform and unwilling to fight for a fairer deal from Europe than the one party – the Conservatives – that is working hard to turn around the nation’s finances (with noteworthy help from the Lib Dems) and which can pave the way for a referendum on EU membership?

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TALKING of David Cameron, he made a telling point when he defended his privileged upbringing, in response to personal attacks from Ed Miliband that were below the belt in boxing parlance. “I can’t change the school I went to, upbringing I had or the parents I have and nor would I want to,” he said.

He was right to do so. Personality politics is patronising and an insult to 
the intelligence of the electorate – they want to know who is the most able 
leader.

This is even more pertinent after the memoirs of former marketing guru Tim Bell revealed how Margaret Thatcher personally vetoed a hard-hitting Tory election advert in 1983 of Michael Foot depicting a frail-looking Labour leader walking with a stick on Hampstead Heath in his donkey jacket with the caption: “As a pensioner, he’d be better off with the Conservatives.”

A livid PM threw Bell out of her office because she believed that there was no place for such nastiness in politics. I’d like to think that today’s leaders would do the same, but I have my doubts.

ONE of the most heartfelt ovations at the Tory conference was reserved for William Hague’s farewell speech, in which he mocked Labour stereotypes by stressing his journey since becoming interested in politics 40 years ago as “a comprehensive schoolboy in Rotherham”.

The Leader of the Commons, surprisingly described by David Cameron “as the greatest living Yorkshireman”, is not the only Rotherham politician in the Cabinet – International Development Secretary Justine Greening hails from the troubled town.

It’s just a shame they felt the need to leave Rotherham to fulfil their political ambitions – the former became Tory MP for Richmond in North Yorkshire while the latter represents Putney.

Ditto Elizabeth Truss, the Leeds-raised Environment Secretary, who represents a Norfolk seat and Eric Pickles, the Keighley-born former leader of Bradford Council. The Local Government Secretary’s constituency is in Essex.

For, if the aspirational agenda of the Tories was given a fair hearing in those Northern towns which became one-party states under Labour, the outlook for young people might, potentially, be more positive. And it might just help the Conservatives neuter Ukip’s electoral impact.

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MY greatest living Yorkshireman? A tough choice I’ve narrowed down to two people – our Olympic-winning triathletes Alistair and Jonny Brownlee who, in an irony of timing, were busy inspiring the next generation of sporting stars at the very moment David Cameron was lauding Hague. Their winning mentality and love of the outdoors are priceless.