Nigel Farage just dropped his second bombshell in as many months with the announcement that Mark Reckless, MP for Rochester and Strood, is following Douglas Carswell and defecting to UKIP.
Reckless told his new party’s conference that after sleepless nights and discussions with his wife about the decision, he was motivated by the view that “the Westminster parties hold us back”. He’s duly announced he will resign his seat and fight a by-election for his new party. A few initial observations:
- Some UKIPers have been briefing for a couple of weeks about upcoming defections – as a result there’s been a hunt for who it might be. In common with several other anti-EU Conservative MPs, Reckless had repeatedly denied that it was him, as recently as last night. In August, he openly criticised Douglas Carswell’s decision to defect. That said, a few antennae did start twitching when he rebelled on yesterday’s vote on military action against ISIS - putting him in line with UKIP policy, on a topic on which he doesn’t have a huge track record of campaigning.
- The new principle that a defection should lead to a by-election is increasingly embedded – perhaps appropriately, it’s Douglas Carswell’s latest change to our organic constitution. Anyone tempted to defect in future will have to weigh their chances of winning a by-election, too. Evidently that hasn’t deterred Reckless, but there are others who are less bold or in more marginal seats who will certainly feel differently.
- It’s worth saying that while he’s a nice guy, Reckless is no Carswell and Rochester and Strood is no Clacton. Both factors mean that he will find it harder to hold his seat than his fellow defector. We don’t have a precise measure of UKIP support in the constituency, as they stood aside in 2010 in order to give him a free run at the seat, but even Reckless acknowledges that it is not classic purple territory nor one of their targets.
- I’m sure we’ll hear more about his motivations over the next few days, but in terms of background, he is much more closely motivated by the EU than Carswell. He would subscribe to the wider ideas of direct democracy for the most part, but they’re a symptom of his euroscepticism – whereas for Carswell it’s the other way round. The continued failure to properly address the EU issue, and to convince doubters that the party leadership is genuinely committed to a referendum, is a hobble which shows no sign of going away.
- The pressure is on for the Chief Whip, Michael Gove, to prevent any more defections. Earlier this month The Times reported that Gove took Reckless to lunch, in order to encourage him to stay. Pretty obviously, that didn’t work – this isn’t about recriminations, but it’s clear there needs to be a better way found to reassure any others who may be wavering.
- The timing of the defection is artfully targeted to cause the greatest possible amount of disruption to the Conservative Party Conference, which starts in Birmingham tomorrow. Every ministerial interview will feature questions about the UKIP threat, every roving reporter will be seeking out hints of dissatisfaction or ear-wigging for MPs expressing sympathy for Reckless. But that’s only the start – Farage’s aim is to become a Sword to Cameron’s Damocles, hanging the fear of more defections over him for the rest of the autumn. It’s a nightmare scenario for a Prime Minister who would prefer to be putting out his own message about the economy, and UKIP will take great glee from being able to torture him. To that end, it’s significant that Farage has evidently established a well-functioning underground railroad for defectors to talk to him, and even slip into a party conference, without being busted.
- Daniel Hannan is now the last of the ‘Three Musketeers’ left in the Conservative Party – at Reckless’ wedding Hannan was Best Man while Carswell was an usher; at Hannan’s wedding, Reckless was his Best Man; Hannan and Carswell are godfathers to each others’ children. To develop what I said when Carswell defected, there could be no starker illustration of the divide on the Right than the three to find themselves in competing parties.
- Beneficiary one: UKIP, obviously.
- Beneficiary two: Labour. Ed Miliband knows his best chance of Government is for UKIP to perform well and allow his candidates to sneak in despite their limited popularity, sinking the chances of an in/out EU referendum. Indeed, it will be interesting to see how hard they work in the by-election for Rochester and Strood, which was fairly recently Labour territory – might they ease off the gas to give their enemy’s enemy, UKIP, a helping hand?
- Beneficiary three: the remaining pro-EU lobby within the Tory party. Expect to see more opportunistic uses of the defection to try to silence anti-EU feeling within our party – Parris-like, Janan Ganesh has already tweeted that “The Tories’ problem is not losing people like Reckless, it is failing to keep them out in the first place.”
- If something helps Labour towards Downing Street, or weakens eurosceptics within the Conservative Party, it harms Britain’s chances of leaving the EU. Therefore, Beneficiary four: The European Union.
- The potential for ideological clash between UKIP and their new signing is even greater now than it was when Carswell defected. Yesterday we saw more fruit of Red UKIP – envy taxes, calls for mass nationalisations, pledges to abandon the so-called “bedroom tax”. For Reckless, a small-state, low-tax, free-marketeer this is a peculiar platform on which he will have to stand in a few weeks. He may tell himself that Farage’s Thatcherite instincts will keep Red UKIP at bay, but he should be concerned that a) Farage is apparently willing to compromise his principles on so many issues if he believes it will win him votes and b) the surge in UKIP membership over the last 18 months has brought in a sufficiently large number of new members from Labour or anti-politics viewpoints that senior members of the party have told me they fear they won’t be able to persuade them of the merits of many of the party’s formerly centre right positions, particularly on the economy. Not all elopements turn into happy marriages.