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 deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories