When we all gathered for a mystery UKIP announcement earlier, even that party’s press officers didn’t know what Nigel Farage was going to announce.
Afraid of leaks and presumably remembering the messy was-he-sacked-did-he-defect row over Bob Spink, UKIP’s first MP, only two people – Farage and the man himself – knew what was coming: Douglas Carswell’s defection to UKIP.
The secrecy evidently worked – only this morning CCHQ invited its Fast Track donor club to a drinks reception with Carswell next month. They’re blindsided by the news.
When I saw Douglas on the platform, backed by a purple and yellow hoarding, I confess my heart fell. He’s one of the conservative movement’s most original thinkers, and his various books (both solo and with Dan Hannan) chart a future course for British democracy that is both exciting and feasible. Plus, I like him a great deal on a personal basis.
According to his comments at the press conference, Douglas’ mind was not made up in a Damascene moment, but rather through a series of different events. Several times he referred to advisers from Number 10 telling him they would seek “the bare minimum” of EU renegotiation to convince people to vote In come 2017. Several times he mentioned the ’22 meeting at which the Prime Minister rejected associate member status or a Swiss relationship. Several times he cited the Government’s rejection of Zac Goldsmith’s recall proposal as evidence of a failure to embark on meaningful democratic reform.
In summary, he charged that a) the Prime Minister was not intent on real EU renegotiation, b) the “bare minimum” strategy was evidence of intent to not hold a meaningful referendum and c) he believes in competition, and radically shaking up politics, and that UKIP is a vehicle to do that.
That last point was always the biggest risk that he would one day defect. There are plenty of anti-EU people in the Conservative Party (I’m one of them) and our number is growing so it isn’t a hostile environment – but Carswell’s euroscepticism is a symptom, not a cause, of his iconoclasm. The prospect of that much-promised “earthquake” appears to have been the ultimate temptation for him, and is I suspect his real motivation.
To his credit, he has stuck to his principles in a typically Carswellian manner and will be holding a by-election to give his constituents the ultimate say on his decision to change parties.
The official Conservative statement is as follows:
“This is a regrettable and frankly counterproductive decision. As Douglas Carswell said, the only way to get a referendum on the EU is to return a majority Conservative government.”
“The Conservative party will contest the forthcoming by-election vigorously to make sure the people in Clacton have a strong conservative voice in this parliament and the next.”
So what does it mean, and what next?
- It’s undoubtedly a blow to the Prime Minister – despite international events, it looked as though the summer might pass without a serious challenge by Labour, and UKIP had been struggling to get their motor running again after Newark. Now the return of Parliament on Monday will be dominated by this news. Plus, we face the prospect of a by-election during conference season (it’s not yet clear who will choose the timing as there are no other UKIP MPs – will Gove have the responsibility?)
- This is a sign of the continuing failure to address the EU issue satisfactorily, and the broader direct democracy issue at all. The image of two blood brothers like Hannan and Carswell (they’re even godfathers to each other’s children, I believe) in different, competing, parties is emblematic of the damage done by a split on the right. We must seek to heal it, and ultimately that will only be done by forging a Conservative Party which Douglas Carswell (and others) would wish to rejoin.
- What of the effect on other anti-EU Conservative MPs? One, David Nuttall, has already stated that he will continue to fight for us to leave the EU from inside the Conservative Party – suggesting that the Better Off Out campaign continues to be a bridge between the divided elements of the right. I asked Douglas at the press conference whether he thought it was right UKIP would stand against anti-EU Tories like Philip Davies, and he refused to be drawn or to “lose an argument with his new party”.
- The official response is clearly the same as the anti-UKIP line before today – the only way to get a referendum on EU membership is a Conservative majority in 2015. That’s true, and indeed Carswell has long argued that case, but in practical terms I wonder how well it will work given the severity of Carswell’s critique and his good standing in eurosceptic circles.
- This will be a serious test of the new, team-playing Nigel Farage. He didn’t look completely at ease in the role of intro/outro guy, and now UKIP have a prominent spokesman in Westminster, on the media’s doorstep. Will the new edition of Farage hold up, or will there be a personality clash?
- It may also prove to be a test for Carswell in terms of belief, policy and strategy. He is very much a Roundhead, dead set on leaving the EU, but now he finds himself in a party which is dominated by Cavaliers, in it for the show, the fight and the harm they can do to the Conservatives as much as actually securing the stated goal. Will he be able to bear that, or to change his new party’s culture? Or will it start to grate over time?
- The way in which the Conservative leadership chooses to address Carswell will be important. He’s now in another party, a party which threatens to help Ed Miliband into Downing Street. He’s made the wrong decision – but, and it’s an important but, it’s clearly a decision on principle, albeit a mistaken one, and there are plenty of Tories who still respect him. Any attempt at character assassination would not be a good look at all.
- Similarly, while Farage and co will enjoy making merry hell with the by-election, for Carswell this kind of direct accountability is an article of faith rather than a way to sharpen the blow (primarily, at least).
- What of that by-election? CCHQ had the option of stealing some of UKIP’s thunder by not fighting it, as Labour did when David Davis sparked his contest a few years ago. However, as their statement says, they will contest it “vigorously”. It’s a risk – defeat would be very painful. Who could do it? Some are suggesting this is Boris’ moment to become the man who saved his party, but given his wavering over standing even in a safe seat I’m not sure he’d take the risk. Others have suggested Dan Hannan, though I can’t see him standing against his best friend. In the absence of a celeb or a well known anti-EU figure, what ordinary candidate would want to take this fight on?