Even before the date of the Clacton by-election has been announced, the contest is all but over. A Survation poll for the Mail on Sunday gives Ukip a remarkable 44-point lead in Douglas Carswell's seat following his defection to the party from the Tories on Friday. Ukip, which did not field a candidate in 2010, is on 64 per cent, with the Conservatives on 20 per cent (down 33 points since the general election), Labour on 13 per cent (down 12) and the Lib Dems on 2 per cent (down 11), putting them on course to lose their deposit for the tenth time in this parliament.
Clacton was previously estimated by Revolt on the Right authors Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford to be the most Ukip-friendly seat in the country (economically deprived, elderly, white, anti-immigrant) and tonight's poll vindicates that judgement. While Carswell's strong personal following has helped, 57 per cent of Ukip supporters say they are voting that way because they "like Ukip", compared to 34 per cent who say they "like Carswell" and 9 per cent who say they are casting a protest vote. Expect these figures to be cited by those who argue that the former Tory MP has cynically jumped ship in order to avoid defeat next year. Immigration is by far the main concern for Ukip voters (57 per cent), followed by the EU (13 per cent) and the cost of living (6 per cent).
Based on the poll, there appears to be nothing the Conservatives can say or do to hold the seat. Even were they to install Boris Johnson as the candidate, as some commentators have suggested, Ukip's lead would fall by just 11 points to 33 per cent (60-27). Perhaps most worryingly of all for the Tories, Ukip supporters are almost entirely unmoved by the warning that voting for the party risks making Ed Miliband prime minister. Just 15 per cent say they would be less likely to vote Ukip, while 16 per cent say they would be more likely and 69 per cent say it would make no difference.
The question for the Conservatives is whether they still run a full-blown by-election campaign, risking a humiliating defeat, or instead go easy on Carswell. Those in the party who were already arguing that they should give the defector a free run will cite the poll as further justification for doing so.
It is now a near-certainty that Ukip will win its first elected MP, with all the dangers that entails for the Tories. Victory for Carswell will ensure Ukip even greater publicity and make it far harder for its opponents to dismiss it as a party of protest. If Ukip wins one MP, why can't it win more? For the Tory leadership, the fear is that others may be persuaded to cross the floor ahead of May 2015, not least if they believe this would give them a better chance of holding their seats.