If you vote for the United Kingdom Independence Party you will cheer up Tony Blair. So said Michael Howard on Tuesday, and he is clearly right. The Conservatives are the only party (apart from Labour) that can remove Mr Blair from government; they have made impressive progress under Mr Howard's leadership, and their momentum will at the very least be slowed by a strong showing by Ukip. Therefore the most astute protest vote which can be registered in next Thursday's European elections is for the Conservatives.
British democracy has long worked so well because by the time people have concluded that the party in government has become insufferable, the opposition has been obliged to make itself electable. That is the glory of the two-party system, which itself rests on the first-past-the-post form of election. The government which once appeared so pristine and so popular becomes tired, complacent, arrogant, out of touch and prone to grotesque errors of judgment. This process has overtaken Mr Blair much more rapidly than his admirers expected. He has become an embarrassment even to many of those who elected him.
At the next general election the health of British democracy can be restored by throwing out Mr Blair and his cronies and by putting in Mr Howard's lot. This is not to pretend that the Conservatives are perfect — perfection is scarcely to be looked for in human beings, let alone in politicians — but simply to observe that the Conservatives have been tempered by a decent spell in opposition. Much against their will, they have been spared the corruptions of power, including the ineffable self-righteousness of the Blairite ruling class which has spent the last seven years fleecing the British taxpayer in order to pay hundreds of thousands of extra bureaucrats to pursue policies which sound marvellous when propounded at the dinner tables of north London. Blairite interference in the private life of the citizen comes at a very high price in freedom and also in economic dynamism. The Conservatives understand this, and so, increasingly, do the British people.
The problem with the elections for the European parliament, to be held next Thursday, is that they are completely alien to the British tradition. No change of government will result from these elections, and instead of our trusted system of first-pastthe-post voting, which makes it very difficult for frivolous or single-issue candidates to succeed, they are held under a form of proportional representation. The whole set-up is an invitation to behave irresponsibly. We are presented with the pretence of democracy, instead of the reality, and one can hardly be surprised if some voters respond to such an insult by deciding to insult the conventional political parties in return.
This is the appeal of Ukip: it offers a chance to voters to kick Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats all at once, for all three of these parties have supported, at one time or another, the ceding of our inalienable and hereditary right of self-government to the morbid apparatus which has been created in Brussels. The exasperation felt by many voters, and in particular by many former voters, as they have watched the bien-pensant classes sell our traditional liberties, is very hard to overstate. Hence the appeal of Ukip, as an expression of pure, uncompromising anger with the errors and weakness of our political class.
Yet Mr Howard is right to raise his standard in the centre ground of politics. This territory may be distressingly hard to define in terms of pure principle, but it has to be recovered from the Blairites if the Conservatives are ever again to form a government. That is the pragmatic truth which Mr Howard has grasped, and which some of his perfectionist critics, obsessed by their ingenious schemes for creating heaven on earth the day after the next general election, have failed to grasp.
It would be pleasant to imagine, as Ukip does, that we could simply leave the European Union and live in glorious isolation from the continent of Europe. But the distribution, and especially the concentration, of power in Europe can never be regarded with indifference by anyone determined to uphold the British national interest.
That is why Mr Howard is correct to maintain that the European game is still worth playing. The question is not whether Europe exists, but what kind of Europe exists; and here Britain has a vast amount to gain by steering the EU in the right direction towards a loose federation of nation states. The paradox of this whole debate is that we do not lack allies among the peoples of Europe. In just about every member state of the EU, the instinct for self-government is strong, and in some of them this instinct will even find expression next Thursday. Ukip is itself an expression of that instinct, but it plays the European game in far too defeatist a spirit. We do not have to leave the field in a fit of pique, nor do we have to accept Mr Blair's programme of gradual concession to Brussels. Mr Howard deserves our strong support for realising this.