Denizens of the Westminster bubble will have heard several strange sounds reverberating on Thursday. Firstly, the dull thud of a thousand jaws hitting the floor as news broke of Douglas Carswell’s defection to UKIP. This was followed by the faint whirring of shredders as conference speeches and party news grids for the next few months were consigned to various confidential waste bins. And, finally, a slow, mounting thunderclap as the political implications of his decision -and his probable ensuing by-election victory – finally sank in amongst the political classes.
Douglas Carswell has always been something of an oddity amongst Conservative MPs. Simultaneously a committed Eurosceptic trouble-maker and an arch-moderniser driving David Cameron to be more radical on localism and party democracy; he defied easy categorisation as a member of any of the well-established Tory tribes. In 2005 he helped found Cornerstone, a right-wing, traditionalist grouping of Conservative MPs – dubbed the ‘Taliban tendency’ and ‘the Tombstone Group’ by its critics within the party – yet in 2010 he was the only Conservative MP to openly advocate proportional representation. He was viewed as a maverick, a radical and a rebel by some within the party high command, yet he has also been criticised by other Tory Eurosceptics for being too loyal to the leadership.
Whilst his departure to UKIP will mean that his defection is primarily viewed through the filter of the Conservative Party’s age old difficulties over Europe, the content of his defection speech indicates that his real motives lie with his frustration over Cameron’s failure to deliver on the real substance of party modernisation. At the press conference today Carswell particularly lamented the Prime Minister’s failure to introduce legislation to enable the “recall” of disgraced MPs, and was critical that the party had not more enthusiastically embraced the idea of open primaries as a method for selecting candidates. These are innovations that Carswell has long championed – including in the three books he has written. Although the Conservative leadership has ostensibly indicated its support, still no real reform has emerged. Like Cassandra in Greek mythology, Carswell’s warnings have gone unheeded and instead he has resolved to be the agent of change, perhaps hoping a better, more democratic Conservative Party will emerge from the ruins of a UKIP-generated political earthquake.
It looks like Clacton could be the epicentre of that earthquake. Carswell is a capable campaigner – in 2001, when he was the Conservative candidate against Tony Blair in Sedgefield, Carswell managed to cut the serving Prime Minister’s majority by 7,500 votes. Between 2005 and 2010 (aided in part by boundary changes), he turned a narrow majority of 920 in his old constituency of Harwich into a thumping majority of over 12,000 in the newly created Clacton seat.
There is no denying that Carswell’s defection is a huge blow to the Prime Minister. The Conservatives had hoped that their victory in the Newark by-election had halted UKIP’s advance. The Clacton by-election will now dominate the political agenda for the next few weeks, and cast a big shadow over party conference at the end of September. This could drown out the key election messages about economic recovery that the Conservatives had wanted to be front and centre over the next few weeks.
Worse still, a UKIP victory (and a UKIP Member of Parliament) will give the impression that the political momentum is with UKIP as we enter 2015. In much the same way that the Glasgow Hillhead by-election in 1982 – in which Roy Jenkins spectacularly captured a previously safe Conservative seat for the SDP – Clacton could be a pivotal moment in UK politics, and a turning point for Cameron’s premiership. Lynton Crosby is no doubt fuming in his office at Conservative HQ.
That Carswell has chosen to resign from Parliament and force a by-election makes his decision to defect all the more dramatic.
James Ford is a Senior Consultant at PLMR. Previously he was an aide to Mayor of London Boris Johnson, advising him on transport, digital and environment policy between 2010 and 2012.
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