It started at his defection press conference. After the speeches, I put my hand up to ask a question: given that Douglas Carswell was one of the Better Off Out MPs whom UKIP had agreed not to stand against in 2010, how did he feel about Nigel Farage’s decision to break the deal and oppose people like Philip Davies in 2015?
I expected one of two answers: either he would toe his new party’s line or stick his neck out and say what he thought was right. Given that this was Carswell, the latter seemed much more likely than the former.
He surprised me by doing neither. He replied instead that he had spent long enough disagreeing with the leadership of the Conservative Party and he didn’t intend to “lose an argument with his new party” this early. Next question.
It was a strikingly un-Carswellian moment – a man who normally had at least an opinion on just about everything (normally a thoughtful and interesting one) and wasn’t afraid to tell you about it suddenly refused to pass comment on something highly relevant to the news he had just delivered.
Looking back, it was the first of a series of examples of the way in which UKIP keep making their new MP uncomfortable. Here are a few more that have occurred since then:
- A week after his defection Cathy Newman asked him about his new leader’s views on maternity leave: ‘Carswell couldn’t disagree more with Farage, going out of his way to make clear he “would never characterise the argument about maternity leave in those ways…I think one of the great things about this country that is so much better and has got so much better is the fact that women and men have greater equality and it’s improved the life chances of men as well as women. If I come across attitudes that are out of date and that jar with my understanding of how modern Britain should be I will always tackle that.”
- On the campaign trail, he regularly and publicly challenged the “nativism” of voters who intended to support him due to their opposition to immigration – including when he was interviewed by our own Andrew Gimson.
- His acceptance speech at the Clacton count laid out an optimistic view on Britain starkly at odds with that espoused by UKIP – warning them that they must “be a party for all Britain and all Britons, first and second generation as much as every other”. It was a calculated comment, aimed at communicating his strong disagreement with their rhetoric on immigration.
- On the day after the Clacton by-election, Farage declared his opposition to immigrants with HIV (a disease Carswell’s father helped to diagnose) entering the country. This walkabout video makes for distinctly uncomfortable viewing – Carswell is asked about it at least four times before giving a very carefully phrased reply which doesn’t touch on the actual disease (though Farage doesn’t help by starting to list infectious diseases while he’s answering).
- Or when the Daily Mail asked him about UKIP’s decision to ally with an MEP who is a member of an extremist party in return for greater EU funding: ”I have nothing to say on this. You need to talk to the MEPs,’ he said three times, before putting the phone down sharply.’ – a reply he repeated to Jeremy Vine (42 minutes, 10 seconds).
I’m sure these six examples won’t be the end of the trend. Together, they rather fuel the feeling that while Carswell’s explanation that he was unhappy in the Conservative Party may be internally coherent, his decision that UKIP would be a better fit doesn’t follow quite so well.
As an admirer of many of his ideas and his regularly stated belief in clear, open principles, it’s a painful thing to watch – the time was when it would have been impossible to imagine him refusing to comment or batting a serious question off with “talk to the MEPs”.
If it’s difficult for us to observe from the outside, it must be a thousand times harder for the man himself. This is someone who felt so strongly about his previous party doing things with which he disagreed that he agonised about it for months, before choosing to defect and voluntarily hold a by-election. What must it be like to find himself cringing weekly at the latest antics of his new party?
I wrote about the possible tensions between UKIP and Douglas on the day of his defection, wondering if he would succeed in changing his party’s culture or whether it would start to grate over time. It seems the grating may have already begun.