Mainstream parties across Europe have been struggling for some time to counter the appeal of the populist radical right. With the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the British Conservative Party is now facing a similar challenge. We argue that, since this is the case, it makes sense to ask whether there are lessons it can learn from other countries – in particular Austria, where the centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP) has been competing against the populist radical right (most obviously, the Freedom Party) for almost three decades. In the course of so doing, the ÖVP has tried many ways to deal with the threat posed: treating the populist radical right as a pariah; adopting some of its policies and rhetoric; inviting it into coalition government; and finally pursuing a ‘dual-track’ approach. We evaluate each strategy in turn and find that none of them has enjoyed huge or lasting success. We conclude that the Conservatives need to realise that UKIP is not so much a problem to be solved as a situation to be managed. Seeking to toughen the Tory stance on immigration and asylum is unlikely to pay electoral dividends and carries with it considerable downsides in terms of the party’s credibility and reputation, as well as in terms of public policy. Moreover, even if a more restrictive stance does not prove entirely pointless or (worse) positively counterproductive, it imposes opportunity costs the Conservative Party should think twice before paying. All this suggests the value of a comparative approach to those wanting to understand the new dynamics in British politics.
British Politics (2014) 9, 237–254. doi:10.1057/bp.2014.7; published online 19 May 2014, http://www.palgrave-journals.com/bp/journal/v9/n3/full/bp20147a.html