Nigel Farage has spent years moulding Ukip into the perfect political anti-party. Bon-bons, beer and union flag bunting are in; political-correctness, strict party-lines and untouchable budgets are firmly out. But for how long?
The anti-establishment teenager has grown into a young adult. At 21, the party is beginning to be taken seriously, having graduated to the political big-league and left fringe politics behind. In the process Ukip is taking on new people at a rate of knots and Patrick O’Flynn, former political editor of the Daily Express, is one of them. Announced as director of communications earlier this year, O’Flynn set about getting Farage taken seriously, but even he admits he didn’t think Ukip could persuade sitting MPs away from their parties to swell the fledgeling challenger’s ranks.
“Nigel had been thinking several moves ahead and had conversations with Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless. I didn’t know until very late in the day – it was sort of like a special forces military operation,” he admits. “The fact that Nigel could fight the European election with that intensity in the first half of the year and still find the energy to win those defections was a formidable achievement.”
But with credibility comes the need to provide voters with a sensible manifesto, not a 200 page tome that even the leader admits he didn’t read. “We’ve got more of a plan than George Osborne has for cutting the deficit,” O’Flynn claims, “He’s very flexible in terms of what he believes in and he massively overspun the idea that public finances are under control. I think that was quite foolish.”
Ukip’s plan, he explains, is to throw the rule book out of the window when it comes to devising spending plans, and that means tax hikes are on the agenda. “It’s not ideal to have to tax people more for anything,” O’Flynn admits, “but we have this enormous deficit after five years of the coalition failing to get it down so if you’re proposing tax cuts in one area it is necessary to think about how we’re going to deal with it. It can’t all come from cuts in expenditure.”
O’Flynn is tentative, explaining that any plans to hike tax would be fully thought through. And no wonder he is cautious. Earlier this year his suggestion that VAT on luxury items should be raised to pay for increasing the personal allowance was panned by Nigel Farage publicly. The embarrassing episode over what was dubbed the wag tax, after the handbags and expensive cars it would suck in, highlighted clear differences between Farage and his economic spokesman when it comes to the bottom line.
“Nigel comes at it from a City of London wealth creation perspective. He is rightly very suspicious of constraint,” O’Flynn explains. “In that same speech I talked about getting rid of inheritance tax, so I reject this idea that I’m all about hiking taxes. Where it comes from for me is a desire to cut taxes on wealth creation and work, and sometimes you need to think about alternative sources of revenue for that.”
The LibLabCon, he explains, have solidified around one set of ideas and “exclude” any that don’t fit. Ukip would scrap the Barnett funding formula between the devolved regions, HS2 and subsidies for “green stuff”. “There are certain things people really care about – the NHS is number one, but foreign aid spending is totally indefensible, particularly now,” O’Flynn adds. Ukip would cut it to pay for just infant inoculations in struggling nations, emergency relief schemes and the clean water programme. “It’s very easy to be generous with other people’s money,” he explains. “You’re going to have less control of the money you give away to other countries riven with tribalism and corruption.”
While some of the views Ukip nurtures may not be to everyone’s taste, there is no arguing with the idea that straight talking politics is catnip to voters. And despite the controversial comments, poll ratings continue to rise. This no-nonsense trait is something O’Flynn admires in Michael Gove, whom he calls “impressive”.
“I think it’s really telling that having made education one of his big priorities, Cameron then sacked Gove; so what is he prepared to fight for? Would Margaret Thatcher have sacked Norman Tebbit over a bit of trouble with the trade unions? That wouldn’t have happened,” he adds. “Cameron doesn’t believe in anything apart from being in Number 10, and preventing someone worse from getting in.”
So would Ukip entertain the idea of a coalition with the Conservatives in 2015? “Highly unlikely”, O’Flynn scoffs. The party is building a “formidable” election team and a war-chest to match in preparation to battle it out in around 100 seats. “Cameron deliberately played the card about Ukip being loonies and racists to make people think we weren’t a respectable party to vote for. We have to try harder and harder to prove that’s wrong,” he explains. “It’s game on now.”