A senior journalist recently told me that his advice to young, budding reporters is to never go away in August as something always happens and there is never anyone around to report it. And so it proved yesterday when everyone seemed to be caught out by the announcement that Douglas Carswell, Conservative MP for Clacton, is defecting to UKIP and forcing a by-election in his constituency. Instantly it caused shock and surprise but soon enough thoughts began turning to what it all means.
Mr Carswell’s defection is clearly a blow to the Conservative Party. Ed Miliband has already been quick to point to it being a sign of division and weakness in the Conservative Party. It certainly does not look good for the governing Party to lose an MP – in a safe seat – to a Party with no other members in the House. It makes for an unwanted distraction and a diversion of precious finances towards fighting an unforeseen, and previously very safe, by-election.
For now the blow is not fatal, but what will be worrying Tory HQ is the prospect of more defectors coming out of the woodwork in the coming months. If this is the start of a trend and a few more colleagues follow Mr Carswell into Nigel Farage’s open arms then the Conservatives begin to have a real problem. Not only will it show a divided Party – the public hate seeing a divided Party – but the Conservatives are already desperate for every seat in the House of Commons they can get and will feel the loss of any more.
Party management has always been a problem for David Cameron and the right wing of the Conservative Party has never been enamoured with their leader who, they point out privately, was the leader who couldn’t win a majority against Gordon Brown. The prospect of defeat at the General Election can force a Party into two directions: unity and resolve to fight the election, or all out war among disgruntled members. The fallout from Mr Carswell’s summer transfer, could, perversely, help to unify the Conservative Party. A number of backbench MPs who may have been ripe for UKIP have already come out against any such a move and they may now be spooked. A Conservative victory in Clacton would help this even further.
UKIP’s threat to the Conservatives is well known and this move only serves to highlight that. With a sitting Conservative MP joining their ranks it continues to build the much needed momentum that they whipped up at the European Elections. It ensures the Party continues to be talked about and adds an air of credibility which had previously been lacking. Starting from a position of no MPs and just 3% of the vote in 2010 this gives credence to their argument that they are a serious political Party which should not be ignored.
The big question is what happens next in Clacton. Matthew Goodwin, an academic at Nottingham University who has been closely studying UKIP, suggests that Clacton is the “most favourable seat for UKIP in the country". The by-election therefore throws up a number of potential outcomes. If Mr Carswell successfully retains his seat, this time as a UKIP candidate, it will not only continue the good news for Mr Farage’s Party, but also provide their first win in a Westminster election and another damaging strike to the Conservatives. It may also encourage other MPs to follow suit. UKIP’s credibility would again receive a boost and they would now be a part of Westminster politics – with everything that entails.
But what if Mr Carswell loses? This is perhaps the most interesting permutation. It would be a significant defeat for man who enjoyed a large majority. Would he seek to stand as a UKIP candidate at the General Election elsewhere or is this his 15 minutes?
The Conservatives would no doubt be buoyed by a victory, although of course it is a seat they expect to win under normal circumstances. A defeat could damage UKIP’s positive narrative and undo much of the positivity the defection itself caused. UKIP themselves would likely brush it off but it is surely a seat they would target with a demographic profile ideal for their appeal. However, defeat would raise serious questions. Mr Carswell is a very popular MP in his own constituency, his 12,000 majority is testament to that – what chance is there for less well-known UKIP candidates, in seats where they have very little personal following, of persuading voters to join the “People’s Army”?
The Carswell conundrum is just another fascinating twist along the long road to May 2015. We will see whether the individual reputation of a popular constituency MP can trump Party support. The timing is delicious: Parliament returns next week and the Conservatives are down an MP. With conference season just around the corner expect to hear much more scuttlebutt emanating from late night bars in Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester and now Doncaster.
Tom Mludzinski, Head of Political Polling, ComRes