Ukip springs its latest surprise
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.