For politicos like myself summer brings the tedious ‘silly season’. When Parliament isn’t in session the papers need to be filled and so we get stories about why Hello Kitty isn’t actually a cat, or a discussion on Great British Bake Off and the ‘bingate scandal’ (yes, it’s become a ‘gate’ scandal)! However, yesterday morning gave us all a nice jolt of lightning – something to get our teeth into before Parliament resumes.
Douglas Carswell, Conservative MP for Clacton, was at a UKIP press conference and announced that he has resigned as party whip and defected to UKIP – resigning his seat in order to spark a by-election. Like a prize, UKIP leader Nigel Farage was more than happy to show off his newest addition to the party. Dubbed ‘UKIPs first MP’, this has given Prime Minister David Cameron a bit of a holiday headache.
Party defections are no new thing in British politics – Winston Churchill defected from the party he would later lead as Prime Minister, from the Tories to the Liberals, later leaving the Liberals to stand as an Independent, and then returning to the Tory party. The Labour party played the tune of defection when Conservative MP Quentin Davies crossed sides to the Labour benches back in 2007. Davies, however, didn’t cause a by-election as he didn’t resign until standing down at the 2010 General Election.
In 2008, Conservative MP Bob Spink had defected to UKIP but was designated as an Independent MP as UKIP had no whip in Parliament.
Not since 1981 has a defection caused such a stir in the corridors of power. 1981 saw the ‘Big Four’ (Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams) lead a mass defection of a further 28 MPs from the Labour party to form the Social Democrat Party – which later merged with the Lib Dems.
Carswell has been an MP since 2005, beating Labour’s Ivan Henderson by 2.2%, further extending his majority over Henderson in 2010 to 27% – an enviable majority of 12,068 votes. This is the figure that will be causing Cameron’s headache. The test will be whether the constituents of Clacton will vote for the candidate or the party. How much of that 12,000 majority can Carswell retain? And will it be enough to retain his seat under the purple banner of UKIP? Some could argue that Carswell must be pretty confident to risk losing his seat and that 12,000 majority.
The by-election will no doubt be a battle between the conservatives and UKIP. A battle that has intensified over the last parliament – with UKIP pressing the Prime Minister for a tougher, more definitive ‘No’ to the EU. UKIP has made gains in local elections and won the most seats in the European elections, yet they have only managed to come second in Parliamentary challenges.
Farage, who was recently selected to run in the Kent constituency of South Thanet, is eagerly awaiting his party’s break into Westminster in order to shake up the establishment, putting his leadership at stake by promising to step down if they don’t get five seats in next year’s general election. A recent poll of South Thanet had Farage ahead of former UKIP leader – and defector to the Conservatives – Craig Mackinlay by 2%. But with the general election less than a year away, UKIP will endeavor to show that they are more than a protest vote in other elections and that they are electable. Should UKIP win this seat, it may cause some on the Tory benches to push for a pre-election deal with UKIP or face the fear of more defections.