The Tories know Douglas Carswell is anything but stupid. Photo: Getty
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Tories criticising Douglas Carswell should remember there aren't just two choices for 2015

If Carswell wins his by-election, and the potential momentum that could give Ukip, an EU referendum will look more likely – and the renegotiation would suddenly look very different.

So, the Tory logic goes, Douglas Carswell is just plain wrongheaded. Resigning and moving to Ukip makes an Ed Miliband victory more likely in 2015, whereas the only way of making sure the country is given a choice on membership of the European Union is seeing David Cameron back in Downing Street.

The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson was saying it all over again yesterday when he stated that if Carswell was serious about Europe he would never have defected:

“But next June, we’ll have one of two options: David Cameron in No 10, and a referendum in 2017 or Ed Miliband and no referendum”

Trouble is – as I suspect most bright Tories like Nelson know only too well – that’s not the only choice.

It pre-supposes that there can only be two governments – Tory or Labour majorities. It neatly ignores the fact that we don’t have either right now – we have a coalition (much as the Tories like to forget it when it suits). And given the current polling arithmetic, we most likely won’t have a Tory or Labour majority government next time either.

When that happens, the “purist” manifestos of all the parties go out of the window, and the plan for the coming five years of government boils down to either what a minority government can get through parliament or what potential coalition partners can thrash out in however long the City gives them to form a semi-sensible plan for five years of government in the days after the election.

Of course, any Labour government or Labour-led coalition has set its face against an EU referendum.

But we might well have a Tory minority government, which may want to hold a referendum but would have neither the electoral mandate nor the parliamentary numbers to get it through. We might have another Lib-Con government – in which case the Lib Dems would veto any referendum talk.

Or, were the polls to leave the Conservatives just short of a majority, they may well end up looking not to the Lib Dems, but to the smaller parties for support. And if Ukip have not the solitary seat many expected them to gain (via Farage) in 2015, but four or five seats, they might well (with the DUP) find themselves supporting the government.

For which they would extract a fairly hefty price. The EU renegotiation would suddenly look very different. Plus the blueprints that Carswell has been outlining for the Tories in government might get pushed over the table adorned with a Ukip logo – and ironically have more chance of becoming a reality

When Farage looked like being the only likely Ukip winner in 2015, this seemed a forlorn pipe dream. But with polling suggesting Carswell will win his by-election, and the potential momentum that could give Ukip, suddenly it all becomes a bit more likely.

Which is of course what Carswell really wants.

It’s interesting that the Tories use words like “regrettable”, “counter-productive” and “bizarre”. But they don’t call it stupid – because they know Carswell is anything but that.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.