The normally quiet summer season was shattered yesterday by the defection of Douglas Carswell, MP for Clacton, from the Conservatives to UKIP. The announcement came out of the blue to most of the media, though it had clearly been planned for some time, given that Nigel Farage had a press conference lined up to which the press were invited at the last minute. Surprisingly the story hadn’t leaked beforehand, and reports suggest that Farage had deliberately kept the rest of his party in the dark to maximise the impact of the announcement.
Carswell’s main reason for defecting was unsurprising for a well-known Eurosceptic: he is unhappy with Cameron’s stance on Europe. He has also accused those at the top of the party of not being ‘serious about the changes that Britain desperately needs’ and claims that only UKIP can shake up the system.1
Farage could barely contain his glee when unveiling the defection, claiming that other Conservative MPs were having ‘similar thoughts’ and ‘considering their options’ - although this somewhat vague statement means he has covered his back in case no one else decides to follow Carswell’s example. There are a number of MPs whom the whips will no doubt be keeping an extra-close eye on in the weeks to come, though many have already publicly ruled out a defection of their own.2
As well as switching party, Carswell has resigned as an MP so that he can stand for election as a UKIP candidate.3 As a consequence of this decision, UKIP will only gain its first MP if it emerges victorious in the resulting by-election, expected in early October.
This announcement is a double embarrassment for Cameron, as he has lost an MP and faces another by-election which he must win. The timing is also unfortunate, with campaigning against Scottish independence and planning for the next general election both weighing heavily on the Prime Minister’s mind. However, the by-election is also a double-edged sword. If the Conservatives lose the seat, it will be a disaster - the coalition’s majority in the Commons will be reduced by two and a success for UKIP may encourage further defections. However, if the Conservatives hang on to the seat, even by the slimmest of margins, Cameron will have got rid of a troublesome backbencher whilst at the same time sending out a clear message as to the fate of defectors.
In the end, it all comes down to the question of who will win the by-election, as the defection by itself gains UKIP nothing in the way of political representation at Westminister. With a majority of over twelve thousand, the outcome rests on how much of the Conservative vote will follow Carswell, either out of personal loyalty or in agreement with his dissatisfaction with Cameron’s stance on Europe. Of course, if Miliband is really lucky, the vote could be split in such a way that allows Labour to sneak through to victory…
There was no obligation to resign, MPs have in the past changed parties or become independent whilst retaining their seat. ↩