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Nigel Farage: Has the UKIP leader lost his old magic? (credit: Getty Images)

It is the British Left that is supposed to split, not the Tory tribe. Long before Monty Python in The Life of Brian so brilliantly satirised the tendency of comrades to fall out — "Judean People's Front? We're the People's Front of Judea!" — they were often much happier fighting each other than they were fighting conservatives. Whether it was the Socialist Review Group, which became the International Socialists, being expelled from the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1950; or the International Marxist Group fragmenting into three factions during the miners' strike in the mid-1980s; or the social democrat big beasts led by Roy Jenkins walking out of the Labour party to form the SDP — the Left, even the moderate parts of it, was fond of fissure.
 
In contrast, the Tories' advantage was supposed to lie in their determination to avoid fragmentation. There was often considerable scope for divisions and feuding behind the scenes, which sometimes spilled over spectacularly into the public arena. But having split over the Corn Laws in the mid-19th century, and then spent so much time out of office in subsequent decades, most Tories tended to take a worldly approach, particularly when elections came around. Politics was no good without power. And to secure it, Tories understood that they must hang together as a broadly-based and unified force.

Then, in 1990, came the fall of Margaret Thatcher, and in February 1992 the signing of the integrationist Maastricht Treaty by her successor John Major. This combination produced the equivalent of a collective nervous breakdown in parts of the Conservative Party.

There was an oddity, of course, in that Mrs Thatcher as Prime Minister had herself signed away so much more to what became the European Union than Major. She only realised it towards the end of her time in office. But in the early 1990s the notion that the Conservative Party had had its rightful leader removed by an establishment plot fused with the sense that Europe had gone too far. A novel idea emerged which was potentially extremely dangerous for the Conservatives. Perhaps the mainstream Conservative Party was no longer capable of accommodating all types of Tory.

While many Conservative MPs and activists stayed to rebel or complain, other Thatcherites, like the young City trader Nigel Farage, looked for alternative outlets. Farage joined the United Kingdom Independence Party, a grassroots enterprise founded in 1993 to fight Maastricht. The Referendum party, established shortly afterwards to get a vote on UK membership of the EU, was quite different. It was a rich man's project run by the billionaire Jimmy Goldsmith. Two decades later the Referendum party is long gone, a historical footnote, and it is the cheeky-chappy Nigel Farage's UKIP which has grown to such an extent that it now imperils the ability of the once-mighty Conservatives to win a general election.

It is not just that UKIP has of late been harrying the Tories in by-elections and local elections, while hoovering up protest votes of the kind that are available between general elections. Farage has got further than that in convincing certain kinds of conservatives that the Conservative Party has betrayed or abandoned them. In this way, a portion of the Tory tribe in the country that would once have been solidly, almost unquestioningly for the Conservatives, now wears the gaudy purple and yellow colours of UKIP. Farage has built a membership of 33,909 (as of February), not only by attracting concerned citizens who reject the mainstream parties or political correctness, along with some outright maniacs, but also by stealing away disgruntled Tory activists and golf club conservatives. If Denis Thatcher were still alive, you suspect that he might have been tempted by UKIP.
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