Tories should give UKIP a free run in South Shields

The Tories are too proud not to run a candidate in South Shields, but it would make a dull by-election all the more interesting if they didn’t

The lesson Cameron is too scared to learn
Alex Wickham, UK Politics Editor
On 27 March 2013 23:49

There are two regrettable certainties about the South Shields by-election triggered by David Miliband’s sudden departure from British politics.

Number one: anything other than a red win is almost unthinkable. To say the old shipbuilding and mining town is a Labour stronghold would be an understatement; this is the only constituency in Britain not to have elected a Conservative MP since the Great Reform Act of 1832. One particularly colourful Tory doomsayer tells me Labour could resurrect Jimmy Savile, run him as their candidate, and they would still win.

Number two: Labour’s inevitable victory will seem all the more convincing as the right-wing vote is split between UKIP and the Tories. When UKIP didn’t run a candidate in 2010 the Tories came second on 21.6 percent, with the LibDems and BNP garnering 20 percent between them. This time round the latter two should be all but wiped out, and UKIP have a very good shot at pipping the blues to second place.

All this has one group of awkward squad Tories quietly mooting a new approach: choose not to field a candidate, give UKIP a free run, and see what happens.

The advantage is plain. A Conservative win is as close to an impossibility as anything we are likely to see in a by-election this decade, if not this century. If they were to give UKIP free reign and unite the right-wing vote one of two things would happen. Either they would run Labour close and give the Prime Minister and his strategists an idea of just how much he should be listening to his critics on the right, or UKIP would fall flat, lose momentum, and lose votes back to the Tories.

Add to this the fact that the 2010 Tory candidate for South Shields, Karen Allen, is well-liked by the party and seen by many as wasted in such an unwinnable seat, and it makes you think. One blue-sky thinking Tory tells me that “strategically, you’ve got to think if it’s not better to keep our powder dry”.

Don’t get me wrong, there is about as much chance of Tory strategists being won round by this idea as there is of Adam Afriyie becoming Prime Minister. An albeit non-committal CCHQ source insists that as things stand they “don’t see any reason as to why we wouldn’t go for it as normal”.

UKIP sources are certainly not expecting Dave to step aside, as much as they would like the Tories to not “split the UKIP vote”. The party has had a busy day with rush of potential candidates looking to follow in the footsteps of Diane James’ Eastleigh success. John Tennant, an MEP’s assistant, and Richard Elvin, the candidate for last year’s Middlesbrough by-election and chairman of its north east wing, are the two names being pushed to me.

The Tories are too proud not to run a candidate in South Shields, but it would make a dull by-election all the more interesting if they didn’t. With nothing to lose the PM could find out once and for all just how seriously he needs to be taking the fruitcakes and loonies on his right. It might be a home truth he doesn’t want to risk finding out.

Alex Wickham is The Commentator's UK Political Editor and a reporter at the Guido Fawkes website. He is a contributor to their column in The Sun newspaper. He tweets at @WikiGuido

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