So how is Douglas Carswell, the Conservative MP who defected to UKIP, going to do in the special election now being scheduled for Clacton?
The first poll (and it is only the first poll, and it’s a small one too) makes very grim reading for the Conservatives.
Ukip could deliver a humiliating blow to David Cameron in the runup to next year’s general election following the defection of former Conservative MP Douglas Carswell, according to an opinion poll. Carswell’s decision to join Nigel Farage’s party and trigger a byelection in Clacton shocked Westminster and the poll of voters in the constituency predicting a massive 44-point lead for Ukip will add to the prime minister’s discomfort.
The Survation study for the Mail on Sunday put Ukip on 64% of the vote, with the Tories on 20%, Labour on 13% and the Liberal Democrats 2%. More than half of those polled (54%) favoured Britain leaving the European Union, while 26%were opposed to cutting ties to Brussels. In a sign of Carswell’s popularity in the seat, more than a third (34%) of those indicating they would vote Ukip said it was because they liked their former Conservative MP, while 57% said it was because they liked Ukip and 9% said it would be a protest vote. Among Tory voters, almost half (49%) said Carswell was a hero despite his defection, with 17% saying he was a traitor….
Clacton is natural UKIP territory and matters are distorted by the drama that Carswell has unleashed, but the implications of these numbers concern more than just Clacton. The Tories ought to be terrified. There will, I suspect, be other Conservative MPs, particularly in UKIP’s Eastern heartland, wondering whether to make the Carswell leap.
So, Ukip are going to get their first MP. This means that the fracture on the right of British politics is a lot closer to becoming permanent, handing Labour the kind of inherent electoral advantage that the Tories enjoyed in the 1980s. This morning, the next election is Ed Miliband’s to lose.
“This morning”? Well, yesterday morning too, and many mornings before that. A Conservative defeat has been on the cards for a long time now. I’m always somewhat taken aback by Tories who tell me that while Cameron may not be an ideologue (not necessarily a terrible thing, incidentally), he does at least have a nose for power. If only that were true. Enclosed within the prejudices of his own circle and a crippling lack of political imagination, Cameron managed to (1) throw away the chance for a clean election win in 2010; (2) create and sustain a space on the right that UKIP has exploited to the full; (3) alienate his own activists; (4) (I am told) neglect his parliamentary rank and file; and (5) make a mess of “Europe” both at home and in Brussels, Frankfurt, and elsewhere.
These errors are many things, but they are not the actions of a politician skilled in the ways of power. They are those of a prime minister who will lose office in 2015.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph (before the poll results), here’s Charles Moore, one of the leading figures in British Conservative journalism. The article is overstated in parts (not least in the claim that Cameron and Milliband are “not far off” being interchangeable), but this is spot on:
The lack of anger among Conservative-minded people [about Carswell’s defection] is striking. Traditionally, MPs who switch parties are accused of treachery. Parties have had strong collective identities. Those who leave the tribe have therefore been scorned. Mr Carswell has pre-empted some of this by his decision – virtually unprecedented – to submit his switch of allegiance to a by-election rather than clinging on without asking the voters.
But he also taps into something that is happening anyway. The loyalty and cohesion of political parties depend much more upon their mass memberships than on their elites. For many years now, these have dwindled. Since Tony Blair became Labour leader in 1994, party leaderships have made it a point of honour to ignore or despise their supporters. The natural consequence is that activists become inactive, or change party. Many grassroots Conservatives have already formally gone to Ukip; many more vote for Ukip in council or European elections. They do not see this as disloyal to their beliefs. I predict they will vote for Mr Carswell in his by-election and he will win.
And on Europe?
The Cameron modernisers made a . . .mistake about Europe. They said they did not want to “bang on” about it. Of course they were right that people were heartily sick of internal party squabbles, but they ignored the fact that the European Union affects all our lives in countless ways – whom we let in, whom we can throw out, who can make decisions on our behalf, whether we have to deface our country with wind farms, even (this week) how powerful our vacuum cleaners are allowed to be. The Conservatives fought shy of the subject. Now they promise a referendum if they win next year, while intimating that they will settle for minimal demands in the negotiations running up to it. Yesterday – too late – the high command organised a ring-round trying to persuade prominent Eurosceptics to talk the referendum up. Why are they surprised if people do not trust their good faith?
This last is crucial. Cameron thought that his promise of an in/out referendum (a promise, incidentally, that had to be forced out of him) would be enough to bring euroskeptics back into the fold, but he has undermined that promise by the way he has talked (and not talked) about trying to “renegotiate” Britain’s position in the EU first. Promising an attempt at renegotiation was, politically, astute enough as euroskeptics need to recognize. Most Brits would rather stay in an “EU lite.” But the reality is that that option is not on offer and never will be. “Renegotiations” carried out in good faith will make that all too clear, and thus (hopefully) point the way to a popular vote for Brexit. The problem, as Moore recognizes, is that few euroskeptics believe that Cameron will renegotiate in good faith. They are right to be suspicious.
The general election is in May.