Ukip springs its lat­est sur­prise

Sunday Express - - Inside Politics -

WEST­MIN­STER has suf­fered a shock to the sys­tem far more in­vig­o­rat­ing than the buck­ets of icecold wa­ter with which MPs have been doused this sum­mer in an in­ter­net char­ity craze. The de­fec­tion of back­bencher Dou­glas Car­swell from the Tories to the UK In­de­pen­dence party has elec­tri­fied – and ter­ri­fied – a po­lit­i­cal class still doz­ing at the end of the House of Com­mons’ long sum­mer break.

Hopes of a re­turn at last to the sim­plic­i­ties of the tra­di­tional three­party slang­ing match over the au­tumn con­fer­ence sea­son have evap­o­rated overnight.

Once again Ukip has shown mas­tery of a tac­ti­cal weapon too of­ten ig­nored in the age of ad­vanced brief­ings and spin: sur­prise.

Gen­uine gasps of as­ton­ish­ment filled the air as Mr Car­swell strode into the wood-pan­elled meet­ing room off Par­lia­ment Square cho­sen for the hastily ar­ranged an­nounce­ment. Even the Ukip MEPs and donors in the room had not been told the pur­pose of the news con­fer­ence be­fore­hand.

West­min­ster in­sid­ers have also been struck by the rare ex­am­ple of a de­fect­ing MP act­ing hon­ourably by re­sign­ing his seat and seek­ing a fresh man­date from vot­ers fol­low­ing his change of po­lit­i­cal colours.

The usual form for MPs who cross the floor has been to hang on to the Com­mons seat and salary for the rest of a par­lia­men­tary term and then bag a peer­age from their grate­ful new leader in re­turn for the po­lit­i­cally ad­van­ta­geous head­lines gen­er­ated by the de­fec­tion.

THE last Com­mons switcher to seek a new man­date af­ter chang­ing party al­le­giance was the long­for­got­ten Bruce Dou­glas-Mann who quit Labour to join the fledg­ling SDP in 1982. His de­feat in the by-elec­tion he vol­un­tar­ily trig­gered ended his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer.

In con­trast Mr Car­swell has a much bet­ter chance of re­gain­ing his Clac­ton seat and be­com­ing Ukip’s first elected MP. He is a pop­u­lar fig­ure in his con­stituency and the Es­sex sea­side town is fer­tile ter­ri­tory for the anti-Brus­sels party.

Se­nior Tories in­sist they will “throw the kitchen sink” into their campaign to de­feat the Ukip threat in the Clac­ton poll and have al­ready be­gun to de­ploy ac­tivists on the ground.

“We will give it our best shot but it is go­ing to be tough,” one aide told me. I un­der­stand that Tory Chief Whip Michael Gove, who is in charge of set­ting the by-elec­tion date, is likely to seek an early poll in Oc­to­ber in an at­tempt to stop the Ukip campaign build­ing up mo­men­tum.

But the loom­ing con­test is bound to cast a shadow over this au­tumn’s Tory con­fer­ence in Birm­ing­ham. The party lead­er­ship had been hop­ing to fo­cus on warn­ing of the dan­gers of a Labour gov­ern­ment led by Ed Miliband rather than fret­ting about Nigel Farage’s “peo­ple’s army” in­sur­gency.

So far Tory Euroscep­tics are in­sist­ing that Mr Car­swell is a prin­ci­pled mav­er­ick rather than the first sign of a mass de­fec­tion.

“I re­spect Dou­glas but he has made a mis­take,” one Tory MP said. “The drive to get Bri­tain out of the EU should be a broad-based cam- paign for MPs from all par­ties, not the prop­erty of Ukip.”

An­other Euroscep­tic Tory MP told me he dis­cussed the pos­si­bil­ity of de­fect­ing to Ukip with Nigel Farage dur­ing a dis­creet meet­ing at a five-star ho­tel in cen­tral Lon­don last year. “I did think se­ri­ously about join­ing Ukip but de­cided to stay and fight the Euroscep­tic cause from within the Tory party,” the MP ex­plained.

Sev­eral Con­ser­va­tive MPs con­firmed to me that it was only David Cameron’s pledge of an In/Out EU ref­er­en­dum in a speech last year that pre­vented a mass walk­out to Ukip.

While im­me­di­ate fur­ther ma­jor de­fec­tions do not ap­pear to be im­mi­nent the Prime Min­is­ter is un­der pres­sure to toughen his stance in his ne­go­ti­a­tions with Brus­sels. Mr Cameron had al­ready been ex­pected to de­liver a force­fully Euroscep­tic speech to the Tory con­fer­ence mak­ing clear the real pos­si­bil­ity of a Bri­tish exit from the EU if sig­nif­i­cant pow­ers can­not be re­turned to West­min­ster.

Now some MPs are ex­pect­ing that speech to be rushed for­ward in an at­tempt to steady Tory Euroscep­tic nerves.

The Tory bat­tle plan for the eight months re­main­ing un­til the next elec­tion needs some re­vi­sion thanks to an­other Ukip earth­quake.

As MPs re­turn to West­min­ster next week Mr Car­swell’s bomb­shell has left that con­test look­ing more un­pre­dictable than ever.

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