The psychology of the Parliamentary Conservative Party is a many-varied thing – take hundreds of people, all unusually opinionated, all distinguished by the rare achievement of being elected to Parliament, all driven to engage in the tough task of becoming a politician by a wide variety of priorities, and you have a creature whose behaviour as one entity is hard to model.
Now increase the difficulty level a step further – somewhere within that group are, perhaps, a few individuals who may be considering at some point defecting to UKIP. As Lewis Baston wrote in September, defectors are an inherently complex, conflicted bunch – they would have to be, to take one of the most drastic steps in politics, altering their identity and breaking long-standing bonds.
In Baston’s words there are three broad types:
‘Some of the defectors, particularly those who call by-elections, are people of obstinate, awkward principle (such as Douglas Carswell, Humphrey Berkeley, Richard Acland and William Wedgwood Benn) who can be relied upon to be a maverick whichever party they are in. Some are people, such as Reg Prentice and Alan Howarth, who find their evolving personal values out of step with the direction in which their party is travelling. Some defectors are lost souls.’
Maybe none of those currently considering taking the leap will ever convince themselves to do it – maybe all of them will. More likely, some will and some won’t. Assuming they might include some of each of Baston’s three types, what might the considerations competing in their minds be as they settle uncomfortably on the green benches or stew over the problem in their office?
- Imagine the cheers. The last few years haven’t offered many opportunities for politicians of any stripe to feel popular – expenses, the tough but essential implementation of austerity, the rise of anti-political feeling have all made things uncomfortable. Most MPs go into the process with thick skin (or swiftly develop it in order to survive), but that doesn’t mean the prospect of hearing cheers isn’t enticing. The look on Mark Reckless’ face at the UKIP conference as the crowd chanted “UKIP! UKIP!” is worth noting. It isn’t something of universal appeal – compare Reckless’ reaction to Carswell’s somewhat stern speech at the Clacton count – but for some it carries weight.
- The EAW fiasco. If an MP in the chamber on Monday evening was conflicted about their loyalties, what conclusions would they have drawn from the sharp practice and clumsy handling of proceedings? There are reports that backbenchers want a ’22 meeting with the Prime Minister and expect an apology from him. There is a widespread feeling that the attempt to rush it all through in that way was a breach of trust. We know the first defection was in part spurred by a breakdown of trust – in that instance over the promise to introduce recall powers. Might this or another issue push someone else over the hurdle?
- Reckless is on course to win next week. Only one of Baston’s types tends to relish fighting a by-election on principle, but Carswell has set the terms of the process out in such a way that it is now expected of all defectors. Therefore, for those a little less keen on leaping the fence of the electorate they need some reassurance that they won’t come crashing down and be ejected from parliament. While polls are snapshots, not predictions (as our proprietor likes to remind us all) there have now been a series of such snapshots showing UKIP ahead in Rochester and Strood – barring a drastic turnaround in the next week that will be reassuring for anyone considering following him.
- But Reckless also may be on course to lose in May. Yesterday’s Ashcroft poll also included hints that it may be possible for the Conservatives to win Rochester and Strood in May, even if we lose it next week. Such a Pyrrhic victory – cheered in the Winter, thrown out in the Spring – suddenly looks rather less appealing.
- Could I get away with not holding a by-election? UKIP have been working carefully to try to open a loophole in the Carswell Principle that defectors must hold a by-election. They point to the convention that by-elections do not need to be held within six months of a General Election. Technically that would mean a more timorous defector might be able to get away with it – though they would face unflattering comparisons with Farage’s rhetoric about Carswell’s brave stand, and it would distinctly take the shine off any claim of high principle or conviction politics.
- But is UKIP the home for me? Let’s not forget that a defection consists of two parts – leaving one party and joining another. Unhappiness within the Conservative Party does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that one would be happier in UKIP. Combine its bizarre, and intermittently vicious, internal politicking with its recent shifts to the left (and flirtations with Miliband) and the grass on the other side may prove to be bitter rather than as luscious as it might look. I recounted last week the various ways in which Carswell’s new party already appear to have made him uncomfortable – there will no doubt be more in future.
- A cost-free parting shot. For Baston’s second type, the person who feels their party has left them or has fallen out with their leader or holds a grudge for some reason against their party, defection offers the chance to wreak some vengeance. Of course, such vengeance might backfire if the MP involved then lost their seat – unless, of course, he or she was standing down anyway. It’s easy to imagine that someone sufficiently hacked off with the state of things that they have chosen to leave parliament might decide to make the most of the opportunity by defecting before they depart. It would be personally cost-free and the most severe blow they could deal, if they were so minded.
This is just to pick out some of the primary competing thoughts in the wavering defector’s mind – no doubt there are a hundred other little irritations, pet frustrations, flickering hopes and debated calculations at work, too. Consider the complexity of the calculation, and you’ll understand why no-one really knows who might be next – even, often, the person themselves.