Simon Usherwood looks at Douglas Carswell’s defection to UKIP, writing that it was a genuine blow for the Tories, who continue navel-gazing on the EU and in-fighting. It was undoubtedly a boon for UKIP, although it remains to be seen whether Farage can co-exist with another big-hitter and whether Carswell will actually have any impact on the party’s 2015 manifesto. He also warns against complacency on the part of Labour, who may be tempted to read Clacton as one less thing to worry about.
Last week’s resignation by Douglas Carswell as Tory MP for Clacton and his joining of UKIP was a classic piece of political theatre. A high-profile backbencher, a seat that already looked more vulnerable than most to UKIP’s agenda of disaffection, a timing that makes the autumn a whole lot more difficult for the Tories. But does this really stack up to the last few days of media coverage and party political debate? To answer this, we might consider each of the actors involved in turn.
The Tories’ loss
For the Tories, Carswell’s loss is a genuine blow. Firstly, they have lost one of their more effective communicators – at least to their supporters – and someone with a real passion for making the best of the political system. Even if he had a (justified) reputation as a trouble-maker, Carswell represented a potential future path for the party, with his wide-ranging libertarian plans for political reform: such big thinkers are in short supply in Westminster.
But Carswell also represents an even more serious challenge for David Cameron. Even if an argument can (and should) be made that the switch to UKIP is more about broad political ideology, it has been seen by almost all commentators as being driven by European policy. Hence the articles about other MPs following Carswell have focused on their views on the EU. For some, this is the moment at which the ‘European bomb’ finally explodes under the party and the cleavage that has long run through the Tories turns into a full-blown schism. In this reading, there is nothing more the leadership can do to hold together the sceptics and the pro-integrationists, so they must necessarily fall apart.
Such an opinion is understandable, but misjudges the situation. While it does mean that the Tories will have to ‘bang on’ about the EU some more, the long-run shift to the sceptics has been almost complete, through a mix of mutual support, circumstance and generational change. As some noted, it is actual rather perverse for Carswell to leave a party committed to EU treaty reform and a referendum, and which has more much change of being elected to power.
The main damage to the Tories then is likely to be one of public perception of a party still engaged in navel-gazing on the EU and fighting within itself. At the very least, there is a very difficult by-election to be fought in the run-up to the general election and the danger that more MPs might jump ship. This latter seems rather unlikely: the tales of ‘others’ are almost as old as UKIP itself and have not come to anything before. Add this to the rapidly-closing window to fit in a by-election before next May and Carswell looks like he’s not going to be joined by former colleagues in any kind of a rush.
Just as the Tories have lost, so UKIP have gained a big-hitter: someone with ideas, media presence and scope to win them a seat in Westminster. For the party, Carswell represents an excellent opportunity. Central to this is his role as a bridge. As I have discussed elsewhere, 2015 is a critical year for UKIP: without a breakthrough in Westminster, the party faces a bleak future (especially as Farage has continued to repeat his line about stepping down if they don’t get a seat). The difficulty has been getting from this year’s strong showing in the European and local elections to something similar next year: the party has little impact on setting news agendas and staying alive in peoples’ minds (even in Clacton, the news was greeted with much indifference). Now they get a flurry of coverage of the switch, plus a by-election, with hope of a seat and a boost to their electoral credibility. That also leverages their case for participating in a leaders’ TV debate.
So far, so good. However, there are still clear limits to UKIP’s capacity. One of the more telling aspects of last week’s coverage was the willingness of the current UKIP candidate, Roger Lord (another former Tory), to be very unhappy about getting turfed out. Given that this has all been some time in the making, that no-one in UKIP central office bothered to manage Lord more fully, or even appear to have a plan for dealing with it all, looks slack. While the party has been trying to improve such aspects, it remains a long way beyond its competitors.
Looking at this from the outside, the initial view might be that this plays to Labour’s advantage: split Tories with their in-fighting, a strengthening UKIP vote to draw votes away from the Right. Certainly, this has been Labour’s approach to the situation in recent year. However, just as the Tories have failed to understand UKIP’s rise, so too have Labour.
A strengthening UKIP vote will draw almost as much from left-leaning individuals and areas as from right-leaning ones. The core constituency of the party is that of the ‘left-behinds’; the older, poor, less educated. Thus, to assume this is just a Tory problem will ultimately come back to haunt Labour. While there has been some understanding of this within the party, it remains marginal, especially given the need to focus on the key election issues of the economy and austerity. Consequently, the danger for Labour is one of complacency in reading Clacton as one less thing to worry about. Whether they can achieve this remains open to debate, although it might take an upset next May in Grimsby to complete the process.
The central figure in all of this is Carswell himself. His motives for this are largely about his politics: as he has tweeted, the unwillingness of the Tories to buy into his views on political reform has been a large part of his decision. His libertarianism is profound and heartfelt and from that perspective UKIP looks like a better bet. One could argue that he has also made a political calculation that advancement to the Tory frontbench isn’t likely, but that is more than offset by joining a party that will be very lucky indeed to secure any seats next year.
Two issues arise here though. Even if UKIP looks like a more natural home for him, Carswell will find that the party isn’t actually very libertarian in practice. Its politics are at best populist, and at worst a pot-pourri of this and that, reflecting the diversity of its members. Certainly, the farce of Farage’s disowning of the 2010 manifesto should give some cause for concern. The assumption has to be that Farage has therefore made some assurances about Carswell’s input to the 2015 document.
And this brings us to the second issue: relations with Farage. If the history of the party has told us anything, then it is that Farage has not been comfortable with others competing for public attention. Carswell might be a new face and an electoral asset, but if that comes at a cost to Farage, then things might become rather more difficult. Ultimately, Carswell might have followed his heart to UKIP, but his head might be asking some searching questions in the months to come.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured image credit: Thierry Ehrmann CC BY 2.0
Simon Usherwood is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Surrey. He is coordinator of the UACES Collaborative Research Network on Euroscepticism and co-author of The European Union: A Very Short Introduction (OUP 2013). He tweets from @Usherwood.