Douglas Carswell with Nigel Farage at the press conference announcing his defection to Ukip. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Ukip 44 points ahead of the Tories in Clacton by-election poll

Douglas Carswell set for landslide victory after his defection to Ukip from the Tories. 

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. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Two referendums have revived the Tories and undone Labour

The Scottish vote enabled the Conservatives' rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted Theresa May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

In the final week of the Scottish independence referendum campaign, as the Union appeared in peril, David Cameron pleaded with voters to punish his party rather than Scotland. “If you are fed up with the effing Tories, give them a kick,” he said. Cameron’s language reflected a settled view: the Conservatives were irredeemably loathed by Scots. For nearly two decades, the party had no more than one MP north of the border. Changing the party’s name for devolved contests was discussed.

Since becoming Conservative leader, Theresa May has pursued a hard – she prefers “clean” – Brexit strategy that Scots voted against and the Conservatives have achieved a UK-wide poll lead of 20 points.

Yet rather than regressing, the Scottish Conservatives have resurged. On 22 April, a Panelbase poll put them on 33 per cent in Scotland (a rise of 18 points since 2015). A favoured Labour barb used to be that there were more pandas (two) in Scotland than Tory MPs (one). The poll would leave the Tories with 12 seats and Corbyn’s party with none. Tory aides confess that they were surprised by the figures but declare there are “no limits to our ambitions” in Scotland.

The roots of this recovery lie in the 2014 independence referendum. The vote, and the SNP’s subsequent landslide victory in the 2015 general election, realigned Scottish politics along unionist and nationalist lines. Led by Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives have ably exploited the opportunity. “We said No. We meant it,” the party’s official slogan declares of Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum. Under Ruth Davidson, the Tories have already become the official opposition at Holyrood.

Labour is torn between retaining unionists and winning back nationalists. It has been punished for its equivocation, as it is being punished over its confused response to Brexit. In April 2016, the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, said that it was “not inconceivable” that she could back independence if the UK voted to leave the EU (and earlier suggested that MPs and MSPs could be given a free vote). Jeremy Corbyn recently stated that he was “absolutely fine” with a second referendum being held.

“For us it’s a badge of honour but there are some people in Scottish Labour who are quite queasy about that word [unionist] and I think Jeremy Corbyn would be very queasy about it,” Adam Tomkins, a Conservative MSP for Glasgow and public law professor, told me. “Don’t forget the Northern Ireland dimension; we’ve all seen the photos of him rubbing shoulders with leading republicans. The Scottish Union is very different to the Irish Union but the word migrates.”

The irony is that Corbyn allies believed his anti-austerity, anti-Trident platform would allow Labour to recover in Scotland. Yet the pre-eminence of the national question has left it in a political no-man’s land.

In contrast to the rest of the UK, Scots backed Remain by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. Far from protecting EU membership, as David Cameron had promised in the referendum campaign, the preservation of the Union now threatened it. Theresa May has since yielded no ground, denying Scotland both a second independence referendum on terms dictated by the SNP and single market membership. But polls show no rise in support for independence.

Conservative aides believe that Sturgeon miscalculated by immediately raising the prospect of a second referendum following the Leave vote last June. Families and communities were riven by the 2014 contest. Most had little desire to disrupt the uneasy peace that has prevailed since.

Nor are the politics of Brexit as uncomplicated as some assume. Thirty-six per cent of SNP supporters voted Leave and more than a third of this bloc have since turned against independence. As elsewhere, some Remainers have accepted the result and fear the instability that secession would cause. Scotland’s trade with the UK is worth four times as much as that with the EU. Davidson, who was one of the most forceful advocates for Remain, says that pursuing independence to counter the effects of Brexit would be “stubbing your toe to then amputate your foot”.

Theresa May, who spoke of the “precious” Union when she became Prime Minister, has devoted great attention to Scotland. Cabinet ministers are instructed to develop a “Scottish plan” when they formulate policy; buildings funded by the UK government now bear its insignia. Davidson’s influence was crucial to May’s decision to retain the 0.7 per cent foreign aid commitment – an emblem of compassionate conservatism.

After a decade of SNP rule, Tory aides believe that their rival’s poor domestic record, most notably on education, is “catching up with them”. More than a year has elapsed since the Scottish Parliament passed new legislation. “We’ve got a government that simply isn’t very interested in governing,” Tomkins said. “I thought that Nicola [Sturgeon] would change that. I was wrong.” What preoccupies the SNP is the constitutional question.

Shortly after the remarkable Scottish polls, a new survey showed the Tories on course to win the most seats in Wales for the first time since 1859. For some former Labour supporters, voting Ukip is proving a gateway drug to voting Conservative.

Two referendums have now realigned politics in the Tories’ favour. The Scottish vote enabled their rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

Before the 2015 general election, Labour derided the Tories as a southern English force unworthy of their official name: the Conservative and Unionist Party. Partly through accident and partly through design, May and Davidson are now reclaiming it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496