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.