Tory MP Mark Reckless announces his defection to Ukip at the party's conference in Doncaster. Photograph: Sky News.
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Mark Reckless becomes second Tory MP to defect to Ukip

Rochester and Strood MP says the Conservative leadership "aren't serious about the change that I think this country needs."

Just when the Tories seemed poised to take advantage of Labour's flat conference, they throw it all away again. At Ukip's gathering in Doncaster, Mark Reckless has just announced on stage that he's become the second Conservative MP, following Douglas Carswell, to defect to Nigel Farage's party. Like Carswell, he has also resigned from parliament and triggered a by-election in his Rochester and Strood constituency. 

This is, to put it mildly, terrible for David Cameron and ensures that the focus at the Conservative conference (which opens in Manchester tomorrow) will be on the right's divisions, rather than any new policy announcements. There had been rumours for several days of two Tories defecting, and CCHQ will be terrified that there may be more to come (not least if Ukip triumphs in the two forthcoming by-elections). 

Reckless, who voted against military action in Iraq yesterday (in line with Ukip's position), told his audience: "Today, I am leaving the Conservative Party and joining Ukip. These decisions are never easy, mine certainly has not been. Many have been the sleepless nights when I have talked it over with my wife, and thought about the future of our children. But it is a decision I make from optimism, a decision that is born of belief that Britain can be better and of my knowledge of how the Westminster parties hold us back, but also of my belief in the fresh start that Ukip offers. 

"We all know the problem of British politics, that people feel disconnected from Westminster. But disconnected is too mild a word; people feel ignored, taken for granted, over-taxed, over-regulated, ripped off and lied to. And they have reason to, because, with some honourable exceptions, MPs too often are not local representatives but agents of a political class. Instead of championing their constituents' interests in Westminster, too often they champion their party's interests in their constituencies.

"We have even evolved a particular language to describe the way in which MPs betray their constituents, they are called brave, or mature, or pragmatic, or realistic, but all those words are euphemisms for one thing, which is to break their promises to their constituents. Well, I remember the promises I made to my constituents in Rochester and Strood at the last election, and I intend to keep them. I promised we would cut immigration, I promise we would cut the deficit so we could cut taxes, I promised we would decentralise power, not least over housing numbers, I promise we would have a more open and accountable politics, and I promised, above all, that we would help get our country out of the European Union. 

"And shall I tell you something, I've found that it's impossible to keep those promises as a Conservative, and that is why I'm joining Ukip." 

He added: "The problem is those at the top of the Conservative Party, they are not on our side, they aren't serious about the change that I think this country needs."

As well as being an obvious gift to Labour, as any defection is, Reckless's move will also help its efforts to "Toryfy" Ukip, which has begun to make advances in Labour territory. With two Conservative MPs on board, it becomes harder for Farage to reject the charge that his party is "Torier than the Tories". In response, Labour's Michael Dugher said: "This is a hammer blow to David Cameron's already weakened authority. On the eve of his conference we again see that Conservatives' confidence in Cameron is plummeting. David Cameron has always pandered to his right, and even they are now deserting him.

"This also underlines that UKIP are a party of Tory people, Tory policies and Tory money. It is clearer than ever that only Labour has a plan to make everyday working people across the country better off."

Last year, Reckless blamed his defeat to Labour in 2005 on Ukip, writing: "Yes, my majority was twice as big as top Ukip vote anywhere in country, but I lost in 2005 (by 213) cos Ukip stood + got c.1500." Expect that to be true for 20+ Conservatives in 2015. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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