Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

Why Right-wingers could now be in the driving seat

I'm not in the habit of taking taxis, as anyone who lives on a journalist's salary will appreciate. But last night, after missing the last bus home, my hand was forced.

After telling me he wasn't into football, the subject turned to politics. Whether one London cabbie is an effective focus group is another matter, but this bloke summed up the predicament facing Tory MPs up and down the country.

"My vote's going to UKIP this time," he said, outlining how his number one priority was getting out of Europe and clamping down on immigration.

He then insisted there would be a general election by January, so perhaps his insight should come with a health warning.

But the fear of losing votes - and party activists - to Nigel Farage's Right-wingers has infected backbench MPs in marginal seats and has now reached the top.

David Cameron has made a number of interventions in recent weeks that could be seen as sweeteners to any Tories thinking of jumping ship.

(Incidentally, this is the same David Cameron who, in 2006, called UKIP supporters "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly".)

After a toughened-up speech on welfare, where he spelled out the cuts a Tory government might make were it not held back by the Lib Dems, there were hints at the weekend about a referendum on Britain's relationship with the EU.

Yesterday, former defence secretary Liam Fox waded into the debate, saying that Britain should quit the EU unless it can renegotiate the terms of their relationship, in a speech seen by some as a pitch for the future leadership of his party.

Keeping up the pressure in the coming weeks will be the DUP, which is pressing for a referendum and triggered an awkward vote on the matter last December.

Its Westminster leader, Nigel Dodds, told me the DUP was closer to UKIP on the issue of Europe than it is to the Government at Westminster.

The European problem just won't go away for Cameron. Yesterday, he faced questions about the EU on the floor of the House of Commons, where up popped Tory veteran Bill Cash, recounting a conversation he had just had with a London taxi driver, calling for a referendum. I've no idea if it was same cabbie.

"It must have been a particularly satisfying and heart-warming taxi ride for the honourable gentleman," quipped the PM, playing for time, before explaining why he didn't want to see an immediate referendum, but, at the same time, would not want to rule out a referendum.

This is the tricky line the Government will try to walk in the coming weeks, under increasing pressure from UKIP, its own back-benchers - and Eurosceptic taxi-drivers.

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