The splendidly named Mark Reckless, Conservative MP for Rochester and Strood, has announced his defection to UKIP. Following the precedent set by Douglas Carswell, last month’s defector, he will submit himself to a special election (something that is not required) that he is by no means guaranteed to win (Carswell, by contrast, looks to be set for victory).
Over at Conservative Home, Mark Wallace (a staunch — and euroskeptic — Tory) has a characteristically sharp summary of what’s going on:
The timing of the defection is artfully targeted to cause the greatest possible amount of disruption to the Conservative Party Conference, which starts in Birmingham tomorrow. Every ministerial interview will feature questions about the UKIP threat, every roving reporter will be seeking out hints of dissatisfaction or ear-wigging for MPs expressing sympathy for Reckless. But that’s only the start – Farage’s aim is to become a Sword to Cameron’s Damocles, hanging the fear of more defections over him for the rest of the autumn. It’s a nightmare scenario for a Prime Minister who would prefer to be putting out his own message about the economy, and UKIP will take great glee from being able to torture him. To that end, it’s significant that Farage has evidently established a well-functioning underground railroad for defectors to talk to him, and even slip into a party conference, without being busted.
Wallace sees four winners from Reckless’s move: (1) UKIP; (2) Labour (the split on the right will help the party’s chances in the general election next year); (3) the Conservative party’s remaining Europhiles (who will try to equate euroskepticism with disloyalty to the party); and (4) the EU (mainly because of the damage that a Labour election win would do the chances of a British exit from the EU).
I’d agree with Wallace about (1) and (2), but I’m not sure about (3) or indeed whether it matters. The problem with the Conservative party is not its handful of enthusiasts for the EU, but the far larger group (including much of the current leadership) who continue to believe that British membership of the EU is a necessary evil that must be tolerated, or can somehow be “renegotiated,” or both. To think that Britain has no alternative other than to stay in the EU is a perfectly respectable (if, in my view, misguided) opinion, but offering up (meaningful) “renegotiation” as an option is either delusional or dishonest. A British opt-out of the legally binding push to “ever closer union” (not to speak of restoring more control over the UK’s borders) would set such a dangerous precedent that there is no chance that the other member-states or the Brussels apparat would ever agree to it.
And it’s the refusal of the Conservative leadership to acknowledge this inconvenient truth that explains why so many euroskeptics will vote for UKIP next year despite the fact that doing so will almost certainly doom the chances of the Conservatives, a party that (unlike Labour) is at least promising an in/out referendum. They know that Cameron was opposed to a referendum (he said as much on a number of occasions) and that it was only fear of the UKIP threat that forced him to agree to promise it. They also suspect that the Conservatives will undermine that referendum by securing a few minor concessions during the much-vaunted “renegotiations” and then proclaiming victory. In any such renegotiations, the small print will count, and small print is dull: a breezy reassurance from Cameron (who himself has no interest in leaving the EU) in 2017 that Britain has secured the necessary opt-outs will be false but it will be enough to convince most Brits (who would rather stay in an “EU lite”) that enough has been done to justify a vote to opt for the devil they know and remain within the EU.
So, yes, it may seem perverse for euroskeptics to opt for UKIP over the Tories (as Wallace rightly argues, a Labour win in the election would be a victory for Brussels), but there are understandable reasons why they might. As to whether they should, that’s a different question, best answered by tactical voting, but that’s a topic for another time.