For the Tory hard right, the electoral maturation of UKIP represents threat and opportunity. They see the impressive votes wracked up in areas traditionally no-go for the blue team. They note how its no-EU, no-immigrants populism falls on fertile soil. And so, being the stupid empiricists they are reason that a) the Tory party is failing because it's not rightwing enough, b) a pact/merger of the Tories and UKIP would capture a large plurality of the British electorate (48% going by adding together their respective scores in yesterday's YouGov poll).
UKIP on the other hand see the Tories in two different ways. There's the strategy helpfully outlined by Stuart Wheeler, UKIP's bankroller. For him the party is less an end in and of itself but a ginger group that will force the Tories further to the right. Bliss is Boris Johnson + Euroscepticism, apparently. Then there is Farage himself. Say what you like about him, he's not a stupid player of the political game. He knows the appeal his one (two?)-man band has among Tory members and loyal voters, and that UKIP has a historic opportunity to force a realignment of the right. Replacing the Tories outright might be a bit of a stretch, but chewing up and annexing as much of them as UKIP might put high office within his reach. He also knows the likes of Wheeler are so much fair weather friends - stabilising UKIP as a large, europhobic alternative with a clutch of MPs in the big house will help make sure the sun keeps shining. And should a group of Conservative MPs decamp en masse, that puts Farage in a very powerful position indeed.
Pro-UKIP Tories then want a pact or merger. The Faragists want to exploit the decay of British conservatism by splitting the party and swallowing the europhobes, reputedly weighing in around 100 MPs and goodness knows how many associations. Yet election-winning strategies they are not.
On the Tory side, the moderate centre right is barely visible in the parliamentary party. Dave's reshuffle dumped pro-EU ministers and drafted in more headbangers, and this itself underlines the disconnect between the PCP and the coalition of interests the Tories need to build to win next year. For every loyal voter having their head turned by UKIP, there's another just about clinging on with gritted teeth. The working class Tories, the small business people, the professions and, increasingly, medium and larger businesses neither in finance or located in the South East have not so much been ignored by their party as having had their noses rubbed in abandonment. Nor are Tory voters uniformly, well, Tory. The Dave of 2010 jiggled his wares in a snug-fitting liberal-conservative bikini. The baggage of racism, sexism, section 28 and general nastiness were things of the past, he told us. For the Tories to jump into the sack with UKIP would put this important tranche of soft Tory voters well and truly off. The pickings for a centre rightish socially liberal LibDems are there. And there are Tory activists themselves. Just as the left likes to fire its big guns on the apostates in its trenches, UKIP has driven a section of Tory activism insane with hatred. They see a party ostensibly with similar aims preventing a majority in 2010, robbing them of council victories and, of course, scuppering any chance of winning next year. For Bone, Hollobone, Dorries and Mogg what they would gain on the right would be lost on the left and centre.
Yet UKIP aren't sitting entirely pretty either. Before the slow burning crisis of Toryism exploded this parliament, UKIP had got on okay with the general run-off of anti-politics. Thanks to the perennially unserious far left, a Green party with nowhere near as much exposure, and the too-toxic BNP, by 2011/12 UKIP had established itself as the go-to protest party. This has carried on being a tasty side order even as the party feasts on the Tory meat. However, the two don't necessarily mix. As the party remains in the ascendency it won't matter too much, but to stabilise the internal tensions need ironing out. For every Thatcherite caricature there's another member who was on the wrong end of the 1980s. Neoliberal fantasists who dream of flat taxes and an NHS founded on payment at the point of need meet with others who have fond memories of full employment and nationalised industries. Enthusiastic Toryism vs antipathy toward it. Where's the centre? Well, there isn't one. The irreconcilable can only be reconciled for so long. Should Farage pull it off and UKIP is flooded with dozens of MPs and thousands of ex-Tories, how long would the anti-politics brigade hang on? By this stage they would no longer be needed, but the price paid is UKIP's anti-politics tinge. Farage and his Tory co-thinkers might have their perfectly formed anti-Europe sect, but it won't be going anywhere.
A Tory/UKIP pact/merger would not win any general elections. But it would still be dangerous. This is a formation that could wreak havoc in local government, continue failing to represent British interests (however you define them) in the European parliament and, most crucially, poison political culture even further. Watching the death agonies of the right is not a spectator sport. We need to be out there challenging both whenever and wherever we can.