Ukip has got the referendum that they have been campaigning so hard to achieve all but written into law. Now, their ultimate prize, EU withdrawal, is being put at risk as they focus on the wrong polls. This is a betrayal of Ukip's founders and core supporters.
A lack of focus in any political campaign can dilute the message and mean a missed target. With elections every four to five years, campaign mistakes may be hard to bear but can be forgiven. With a referendum on European Union membership once every 40 years, misjudging this target would be catastrophic for Eurosceptics wanting full-scale withdrawal. But that is the risk that UKIP are running by allowing scope creep to set in. This is a mistake that could prove fatal.
In a referendum campaign Eurosceptic's have a higher hurdle to overcome
Any referendum on any subject is a simple proposition - change vs continuity. Continuity is usually more attractive than change because you can always change later.
EU withdrawal will be a major change. There may be many benefits, but it is a question that the British public will take very seriously when it comes round. For those not engaged in politics it will seem a stark and risky choice. The focus of Eurosceptics therefore should be to blunt that choice and make their favoured option seem less stark. They also need to explain their vision for Britain outside the EU and have a clear positive message for how life would be better.
Ukip who has championed the Eurosceptic cause and helped to bring about a referendum (courtesy of James Wharton's Bill), should now be focused on winning that referendum and answering questions like: What will Britain be like outside the European Union? Will businesses still want to invest here? Will it affect jobs? And the most deadly questions of all - Why now? Why not wait a few years and see if things get better?
There will be reasonable answers to all these points but in the melee of a referendum campaign, with an opposition fighting their corner. There are just too many for Eurosceptics to address when they have a motivated opposition firing back at them. All pro-Europeans need to argue is that we should wait a few years until after the recovery and reexamine the issues then. This will make continuity seem more attractive and should be a real concern to UKIP supporters.
If Ukip allow this to happen they will have fluffed it big time, betrayed their ultimate cause and could be waiting another 40 years for the next referendum.
Multiple policies risk contaminating the message
Ukip run this risk because they are currently focused on building electoral platforms for the European and General Elections. This is fine if you are a party intent on governing, or winning office to pursue those ideals, but Ukip is a different animal. It has withdrawal from the EU as one of its main objectives and that objective can only be achieved through winning the referendum. Winning MEP, Council or even MP seats doesn't help and could count against it when the big day arrives.
The problem is that with every election that comes and goes Ukip takes on more and more policies. In Eastleigh, they were fighting on immigration, manufacturing jobs, gay marriage, oh and EU membership. They've also waded into debates on international development funding and HS2 (not to mention Bongo, Bongo; Bunga Bunga and women can't play chess).
Sound familiar? These are of course the classic tactics of a party of protest. Ardent local campaigning on a whole plethora of populist issues with the purpose of building a presence and winning power step-by-step. A bit like the Lib Dems. So what happened when the Lib Dems came to fight in a referendum?
Achieving electoral reform has been a central goal of the Lib Dems for many years. But when their ultimate prize was within sight, they fluffed it in monumental style. They spectacularly lost the referendum by such a huge majority that there is absolutely no prospect of electoral reform being introduced for at least a generation.
Much has been written about why the Alternative Vote system was so decisively rejected and the association of the campaign with Nick Clegg, who had very openly broken an electoral promise to oppose tuition fee increases, all feature in any analysis.
This is exactly the risk that Ukip run by continuing on their current course. By taking on a host of other issues they needlessly risk contaminating their ultimate message, which will inevitably affect their side's prospects when referendum day finally arrives.
So what's the right strategy for Ukip?
UKIP could use the forthcoming European election to start making the case for their side of the referendum, but this would require a considerable change in strategy and messaging.
It requires them to acknowledge (inwardly if not publicly) that victory is within sight. Ok, they may not be David Cameron's best buddy but he has offered them what they want in the clearest unequivocal terms that they are ever likely to get.
Now, they need to focus on winning the big argument and the referendum they fought so hard for. This means being confident of securing the support and trust of over 50% of the UK electorate. This is no mean feat and they need to focus on those arguments and those arguments alone that support that cause. Winning 15 - 20% of the vote in any forthcoming election is a waste of time if it counts against them securing a referendum majority.
So Ukip needs to become a much more focused campaign and stop mixing the Eurosceptic brand with a ragbag of other messages. Whilst, they may all be interesting points and tap into a set of concerns that voters feel strongly about, Eurosceptics will need far wider backing to succeed in the referendum.
In fact, Ukip's scope creep runs the risk of tarnishing the EU withdrawal campaign right at the moment when they should be staring at the home straight and sprinting for victory. Carrying on as they are is a betrayal of Ukip's core supporters and will not secure the victory that they ultimately desire.
(There is of course also the argument that UKIP taking votes from the Conservatives will help Ed's Miliband and Balls into Downing Street and with that the prospect of a referendum all but evaporates. I've left that to one side as its covered at length elsewhere).