It is now a year before the next general election.
We know this with more certainty than ever because the coalition has committed us to a fixed-term parliament and, to the amazement of many, has stuck to that commitment. In between will be the local and European elections, which will be no help at all in determining next year’s outcome. UKIP will do well — in all probability, very well — while all the other parties will do badly, to varying degrees.
The Lib Dems, in particular, look likely to be trashed. This is because the British public neither know nor care who their Member of the European Parliament is. Nor do they have a high opinion of the institution itself. It is, in effect, a consequence-free opportunity to send the entire political establishment a message, which is that although when we think carefully about it, most of us want to stay in Europe, we want to do so only if the EU we now find ourselves in behaves a little more like the EEC we (at least those of us old enough) joined in 1973.
Ignoring the few xenophobes who simply don’t like foreigners, concerns about the EU take many forms and come from all quarters of the political spectrum. There is the gradual mission creep engineered by unelected officials and never subject to any democratic assent that saw the original free market vision morph into an “ever closer union” in which more and more power accretes to Brussels.
There is the insistence that new members must join the euro. Those of us who argued against joining were told that we were condemning the UK to a marginalised inferior existence. The same people are the ones telling us we cannot survive outside the EU. They mock the idea that our relationship with the EU should be like that of Norway and Switzerland, while forgetting that the UK is nothing like either of them. The UK is still as big an export market for the other members of the EU as is the US. In short, they need us as much as we need them.
There is also the threat to our financial services industry from the proposed transaction tax that George Osborne and Boris Johnson have both highlighted, and which seems deliberately targeted at the UK. And there is now a new and even more urgent concern that UKIP, in particular, has highlighted.
Free movement of people among the handful of relatively wealthy Western European states was no threat in the 1970s; indeed, the biggest migration was probably Brits to the Costas of Spain. But now a union of 28, many of which have economies that are massively less developed, presents a real problem for those same wealthier nations. And while Nigel Farage’s adverts may be wildly over the top, millions of voters here think it is time the government did something.
David Cameron promises us a referendum in 2017 if he is re-elected, but only after he has renegotiated our terms of membership. The trouble is that he won’t tell us what that negotiation will comprise. But neither Ed Miliband nor Nick Clegg will even make the offer. No wonder UKIP will do well this month.
But here’s the rub. Substantial polling among ex-Tory voters who plan to go with UKIP this time shows that those same voters are much less likely to stay with the party come the general election because they know that to do so would deliver them a Labour government — for them, the worst prospect of all.
The Tories have one clear task. They should forget the fact that some of UKIP’s supporters are clearly a sandwich short of a picnic. Stupidity is not a commodity confined to any one party. They should simply stress the mantra — “vote UKIP, get Miliband”.
The Labour leader continues to be David Cameron’s greatest asset and as long as he offers rent control, energy market intervention, the immediate return of at least a 50% top income tax rate, a clear distaste for enterprise and entrepreneurship and an undefined mansion tax - just for starters - there will not be many in the property industry who will want to give the keys of the car back to the guys who crashed it.
As the polls narrow, it’s all to play for in the 12 months ahead.
Steven Norris is a former Conservative minister and London mayoral candidate, and chairman of the National Planning and Infrastructure Association, and of Soho Estates