Nigel Farage and Douglas Carswell in a photo that David Cameron probably hasn't made his iPad background. Photo: Getty
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Nigel Farage has his eye on more Tory defections, but will it happen?

Following the surprise news this week that Douglas Carswell MP has defected from the Conservatives to Ukip, Nigel Farage is anticipating more Tories joining his fold.

The surprise politics news this week is the defection of Douglas Carswell, erstwhile maverick Tory backbencher, to Ukip. And as is appropriate considering his obsession with direct democracy and restoring faith in Westminster politics, he will stand down as an MP to trigger a by-election, in order to attempt to get re-elected by his Clacton constituents now he’s changed his political allegiance.

And just when we didn’t think it was possible for the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, to look even more like an elated frog, he’s popped up by Carswell’s side both for his announcement yesterday and his constituency visit today, and is crowing that more MPs – both Tories and Labour – could join Ukip if Carswell wins the by-election. He has written a piece in the Independent today anticipating more defections:

There are an increasing number of Conservative and Labour backbenchers who not only support UKIP fully in what it is trying to achieve, but view the impact of open-door immigration... with increasing urgency.

There are rumours bouncing around Westminster about who could follow in Carswell’s footsteps, and the Independent reports that the Tory whips were anxiously ringing round the “usual suspects” last night in an attempt to stave off more copy-cat defections. The Mail reports that there are eight other Conservative MPs who have held “intensive talks” with Ukip about defecting, Carswell being one of nine to have been wined and dined in secret Mayfair lunches by the millionaire Ukip donor, Stuart Wheeler.

However, BBC’s Nick Robinson on the Today programme this morning called the idea that there are eight more about to defect “tosh”, and insisted that “anybody who tells you they know who is going to join Ukip is probably lying” and “the idea that this is part of a planned roll-out I think is slightly nonsense”.

The Independent lists the most likely future Tory defectors, calling them Ukip’s “potential targets”. On the list are Nadine Dorries, Michael Fabricant, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Peter Bone, Philip Hollobone and David Nuttall.

Many of these figures and other “suspects” have expressed their disappointment at Carswell’s decision and pledged their loyalty to the Conservative party, one among these being the eurosceptic John Redwood MP who told the Today programme he “entirely” agreed with everything Carswell had said up until yesterday, reflecting that the defecting MP had been “super-loyal” up until then. He added that the “so-called eight are figments of Ukip’s imagination… dream on, Ukip.”

It is perhaps a matter of exaggeration on both sides. Ukip is playing up the danger to the Conservative leadership it poses, while the Tory MPs who have some Ukip sympathies are protesting too much when they insist on their absolute allegiance to the PM. There is more of a practical point to why it's unlikely that there will be a slew of defections following Carswell. He has set a precedent by triggering a by-election – which is not a necessary move for an MP changing parties ­– and so anyone following his lead would have to stand down and seek re-election too. However, not all Ukip-leaning Tory MPs have as comfortable a majority, and as strong a local profile, as Carswell, so they would be risking losing their seat if they took such a gamble.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.