PM warned on wooing Ukip defectors
David Cameron risks alienating moderate Conservative voters by trying to be more like the UK Independence Party in the hope of wooing back defectors, a former Tory treasurer has warned.
And Lord Ashcroft cautioned that talking about Europe and immigration with the aim of winning over Ukip supporters might actually undermine the Tory lead on other issues, by highlighting areas where voters think they are unable to make much difference.
The billionaire Conservative peer, who has made major donations to the party in the past, was discussing the key findings of national opinion polls he has conducted on a weekly basis throughout 2014.
Lord Ashcroft said the polls showed the surge in Ukip support was hurting Tories most, though Labour was also vulnerable in specific constituencies like Great Grimsby, Plymouth Moor View and Rother Valley.
But he said polling in marginal constituencies showed only around half of Tory defectors to Ukip rule out returning to their former party in the May 2015 poll, and that they "overwhelmingly" prefer Mr Cameron to Labour leader Ed Miliband and would most like to see a Conservative government after the election.
The dilemma for Mr Cameron is that trying to win back these Ukip voters will be "costly if done wrong", the peer warned. The message "Vote Ukip, get Labour" will have only limited success because voters view it as "patronising", while any suggestion that Ukip could play a part in a coalition with the Tories risks scaring off mainstream voters, he said.
And Lord Ashcroft said the polling suggests that as leading Conservatives have talked more about Europe and immigration, voters have come to regard these issues as more important, but to view the Tories as less effective in dealing with them.
"Talking more about them without being able to act can only raise frustration with the main parties, highlighting the appeal of Ukip and detracting from the Tories' real strengths" such as their advantage over Labour on the economy and leadership, he said.
Writing on the ConservativeHome website, the Tory peer said: " Most voters, including a majority of Conservatives, would be unhappy to see Ukip as part of a coalition government.
"Indeed Tories would rather see the Lib Dems or the Greens as part of a coalition than Nigel Farage's party. Tory voters give higher - or rather, less low - ratings to Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems than to Farage and Ukip.
"My marginals polling has consistently shown around three-quarters of Conservatives saying they would definitely not vote Ukip. This illustrates that trying to win back defectors by trying to be more like Ukip would not only fail on its own terms but would risk alienating some existing Tory supporters - not to mention putting off potential joiners from the Lib Dems.
"But as I found in my research on Europe, the message 'Vote Ukip, get Labour' can only have limited success. Most voters either disagreed that a vote for Ukip made a Labour government more likely, or didn't know whether it was true or not. Some voters may also hear a patronising message to the effect that they are too dim to understand the consequences of their vote - and many live in seats where Ukip present the only prospect of removing a sitting Labour MP."