The Conservative party is becoming increasingly strict about its campaigning in Rochester and Strood, ahead of the by-election on 20 November. Unnerved by the polls giving Ukip – whose candidate Mark Reckless used to be one of their own – the lead, the Prime Minister has instructed his MPs to visit the constituency “at least three times” before the polls close, with cabinet members and whips visiting at least five times.
The Telegraph reported this morning on the chief whip Michael Gove’s tactic of sending out regular “Roll of Honour” emails to the parliamentary party, listing the number of times each MP has visited the seat, and naming and shaming those who have yet to travel to Medway to take on their former colleague.
I got hold of one of these emails, and the 108 MPs who are listed under “0 visits” sent around late yesterday morning (some of whom may well have been embarrassed into scampering to Kent today) makes interesting reading.
I won’t publish all the names, but the list includes:
Eleven ministers haven’t yet made the trip, including cabinet members such as the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin. High-profile ministers on the list include business minister Matt Hancock, Treasury minister Andrea Leadsom and defence minister Anna Soubry, and almost all the health team. The new education minister Sam Gyimah is also on there, and he used to be David Cameron’s PPS…
Those who have been identified as having a better chance running under the Ukip banner
Those who have been rumoured as potential defectors
Philip Hollobone – the most rebellious MP
Rogues and eurosceptics
Nadine Dorries – has referred to Cameron and George Osborne as “two arrogant posh boys” and floated the notion of candidates running on joint Ukip-Conservative tickets
John Redwood – one of the most media-happy eurosceptic backbenchers
Adam Afriyie – once rumoured as a stalking horse for the Tory party leadership, and tabled a rebel amendment calling for the EU referendum to be brought forward to 2014
Although the absence of a number of ministers is probably more down to their time pressures than any political statement, 11 is a surprisingly high number considering the by-election is only a fortnight away.
More significant is the number of MPs either linked to eurosceptic views or more directly to having some alignment with Ukip’s overall agenda who haven’t been to campaign. This list is a telling insight into the general party’s attitude to this by-election. The Tory line is that Reckless is not as popular a figure among constituents as their first defector, Douglas Carswell, is in Clacton. One cabinet minister told me at the party’s conference that Reckless is a “complete dick”. But it seems many of the party’s MPs would prefer not to battle against him in his constituency – or rather, to battle against Ukip.
Reckless himself – although it is admittedly in his interest to do so – suggested to me that, if he wins, there could be more Tory defections ahead:
There are one or two Conservative MPs who I’ve had conversations with, and I spoke to a number of colleagues who are keeping matters under review; some will be looking very closely at me during the by-election, but whether anyone else will move, I don’t know.