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.