If Nigel Farage’s repeated boast that other Conservative MPs are considering joining UKIP is indeed true, the obvious question following Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell’s defections is, well, who’s next?
There seems to be an emerging profile for likely candidates: A hardline view on quitting the European Union, an independent streak and limited prospects for promotion within the Conservative party. On that basis, step forward 66 year-old Sittingbourne and Sheppey MP, Gordon Henderson.
Like Reckless, a fervent Eurosceptic backbencher and member of the 2010 intake, Henderson confirmed to the Kent Messenger earlier this month that he had been approached by UKIP to “do the same as Douglas Carswell”. His response to the invitation was elliptical:
I’m not interested in party political manoeuvring. I’m simply not in that game. I’m not someone who is going to change because of the political winds at the time.
I am a Conservative because the Conservative Party reflects many of my core principles.
I feel a huge sense of loyalty to all those people that voted for me at the last election and all those people who worked so hard for me for so many years. I would not want to betray the trust they put in me.
I’ve always tried as a member of parliament to always put people before party. I just get on with it. I’m happy just representing my constituents. My priority is people, not politics.
That’s a classic non-denial denial and could in fact be read as a kite-flying exercise to test public opinion about the prospect of defecting. Indeed, his response contains no tribal attack on UKIP or Farage, which would have helped rebut the speculation.
Nothing in his statement precludes the possibility of a defection to UKIP. In not wanting to blow with the “political winds” he could argue that as a long-term Eurosceptic (he’s a member of the hardline Eurosceptic group Better Off Out), his political values haven’t changed at all.
Also, he could plausibly make the case that while the Conservative party reflected “many” of his “core principles” so does UKIP nowadays. After all, Nigel Farage has proudly declared himself a Thatcherite.
Meanwhile, triggering a by-election so local people can offer a fresh mandate – as Carswell and Reckless have done – would get around the issue of not wanting to “betray the trust” of his electors. While his “people before party” claim makes it easy to argue that his motivation is selfless and principled; especially if the speculation about a defection has generated a positive reaction locally.
Henderson also opposed military action against Islamic State last Friday, just as Reckless did, a move that echoes UKIP’s position. Henderson is also the neighbouring MP to Reckless, while Farage is planning to stand in nearby South Thanet next May. Indeed, Sittingbourne and Sheppey has already been confirmed as one of UKIP’s top target seats, providing a powerful incentive for Henderson to consider his political mortality.
All of this is, of course, circumstantial; but it is not unreasonable to speculate that Eurosceptic birds of a feather might prefer to flock together. After all, Henderson once told ConservativeHome website that the non-Conservative politician he admired most was…Nigel Farage.