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29 September 2014updated 21 Jul 2021 11:17am

Defection reflections: how Ukip hijacked Tory party conference

Mark Reckless defecting from the Conservatives to Ukip means rumours of further converts are defining this year’s party conference.

By Anoosh Chakelian

The Conservative party conference this year is being dominated by rumours of defecting Tories. Following Mark Reckless MP’s defection during Ukip’s conference on Saturday, on the eve of the Tories’ annual event, rumours of further converts have persisted.

I’ve heard from a well-connected Tory insider that there is “almost definitely” going to be another defection during Conservative party conference. And this clearly isn’t an isolated titbit. Tory commentator, LBC presenter and political publisher Iain Dale sent a tweet earlier today that has sent the conference rumour-mill into overdrive:

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This last comment from Dale is an intriguing one. The main name flying around the conference at the moment is Dan Hannan, the Tory eurosceptic MEP for the southeast. Indeed, a cabinet minister tells me that as Hannan “is best friends” with Reckless and the first MP defector, Douglas Carswell, “if anyone’s going to go, he’s the most likely”. “Those three are close friends,” they add.

Yet Hannan has outright denied any intention to jump ship, telling Andrew Neil on the BBC’s Daily Politics today that David Cameron’s referendum pledge “changed everything” for him.

Other names doing the rounds are Chris Kelly, – I reported yesterday that Tory HQ is “incredibly concerned” about the pressure Ukip is apparently piling on him to defect – Gordon Henderson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Adam Holloway and Nadine Dorries.

The latter has kept an uncharacteristically low profile this conference, and it is well known that she is no fan of the current Tory leadership, famously dismissing Cameron and George Osborne as “two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk”. She also made headlines last year by suggesting she would look into a joint Ukip candidacy in her constituency. She told me over lunch last year that there she has some affinity with Ukip:

I’d have exactly the same values as the UKIP candidates standing against me [in 2015]. I voted against increases to EU budgets, I voted for an EU referendum as soon as possible, I’m pro-grammar schools, I’m pro-reducing immigration – it would make sense to talk about at least a joint candidacy.

All this speculation – a favourite pastime of many political correspondents – is somewhat dominating the mood of conference. However, I feel – and I know others do – that this conference has a bit more of a buzz about it than Labour’s rather lacklustre efforts at their equivalent event last week. How come the Tories are staying buoyant as their own members are considering jumping ship? A Tory frontbencher told me last night: “Whenever there’s this type of adversity, it can really make people pull together and fight back.”

Indeed, both Cameron and the party chairman Grant Shapps MP have used this conference to hit back at defectors forcefully. Shapps set the tone for this no-prisoners approach in his speech on the first day, which I reported here. He told conference that Reckless had “lied and he lied and he lied”.

The Tories are attempting to make the best of a rather precarious situation. It won’t be so easy come 2015.