UKIP have a second MP and Mark Reckless has survived his decision to defect – albeit with a majority of 2,920 rather than his 9,953 in 2010. What are the implications, what are the lessons and what’s next?

  • It’s undeniable this is a defeat for the Conservatives – for all the attempts to price in the outcome over the last few weeks, there was a widespread expectation that the seat could be won but it wasn’t. The mood at party conference was bullish, from the Prime Minister down to the grassroots. How did we go from that to this week’s damage limitation efforts in such a short time?
  • It wasn’t a great campaign. The party was trying out different tactics, to see if any of them stuck. It’s fair to say that few of them did – from attacking Reckless for his background even though it was fine when he was one of ours, to absurd questions of how a UKIP victory would affect the house price, there were more unsuccessful experiments than successful ones. That said, no main party has yet developed a reliable way of puncturing the UKIP bubble, so better to test things out at this stage than in a General Election.
  • But it did make some dents in the UKIP lead. The polls showed Reckless ahead by 15, 12 and 9 points – as our proprietor would say, those were snapshots not predictions. Something in the mix reduced the number to 7.3 per cent on the day. The party will be working hard to deduce what it was that worked.
  • UKIP’s expectation management still leaves something to be desired. Someone there let it be known on Monday that they would win by 15 points, and even at the count last night there were mutterings of a 10 point victory – neither of which help them make the most of their actual result.
  • That isn’t a question of partisan pointscoring, it’s highly relevant to one of the central aims of their by-election campaign which is to persuade other would-be defectors that they would be successful if they were to jump ship. For such waverers, whose psychology we explored last week, the question of where they land if they jump – on the green benches or out of a job – is obviously important. Victory for Reckless will bolster Farage’s seduction of them, at least in the short term – as long as he’s managing their expectations well.
  • Lessons for defectors 1) Being an incumbent is a big perk. Contrast Heywood and Middleton or Newark with Clacton or Rochester and Strood, and it’s clear that being a sitting MP with name recognition is a powerful asset – these are the only types of UKIPers who have won election to parliament.
  • Lessons for defectors 2) It’s about seat, face – and timing, too. I wrote at the time of Reckless’ defection that he was no Carswell and his seat was no Clacton. That’s borne out by the fact that his majority is a quarter of the size of his colleague’s. Add in the consideration that while a second UKIP MP is less exciting than a first, a third is less exciting still – there may well be a trend of diminishing returns for such defections, and no-one wants to be caught out as the one who didn’t quite land in the bandwagon.
  • Lessons for defectors 3) Watch out for May. Not (on this occasion) the Home Secretary, but the month. Lord Ashcroft’s polling showed a snapshot 12 point UKIP lead in the by-election slipping to a one-point Conservative lead come the General Election. Of course, Reckless may be able to turn that round by campaigning over the next few months, but he’s far from safe come the Spring.
  • Watch the Whips. Michael Gove’s role isn’t just that of the traditional Chief Whip, but he faces a defection risk the like of which is rarely seen in our party. I was surprised to read yesterday that he is “absolutely 100 per cent convinced no-one else will defect”. That’s a big, personal claim which he won’t be able to forget – and it isn’t one that most Tories would risk making at the moment.
  • UKIP’s internal politics grow more complex by the day. With increasingly bitter tensions over economic policy and Carswell’s differences from Farage over immigration in particular, we can now add Reckless’ election night call for “Gladstonian finance” and his (little-mentioned) support for Same Sex Marriage. Maybe the People’s Army will succeed in bundling together vastly differing opinions in the common cause of getting elected, like the 1990s Lib Dems they study so closely – but there remains huge potential for fallings out.
  • There is literally nothing Miliband can’t mess up. Having abdicated almost completely in a seat that they held until 2010, the compensation was meant to be that Labour got to sit back and watch all the negative headlines hurt the Conservatives. Instead, Emily Thornberry managed to drag the focus back on to her own party’s problems by a) unwisely tweeting an apparently surprised or judgemental picture of a house with England flags hanging out of the window, b) issuing perhaps the world’s clumsiest apology (including an unbelievable claim that she had never seen anything like it before), and c) in so doing panicking her leader into sacking her. To be honest, Thornberry could have survived the farce – she was a notoriously smug lefty before the tweet and she remained so after – but Miliband’s desperation saw him make her jump before she was pushed. On Monday he was beaten by a popstar. Yesterday he was defeated by a house. The Labour leader should spend the weekend nervous of going up against kerbs, squirrels or light breezes in case he comes a cropper.
  • If we’re honest, nobody in Westminster really knows how the new dynamics are going to play nationally in May. UKIP are hurting the Tories – and in some areas are reaching the point where they may hurt Labour, too. The Greens are surging in some areas, diverting ex-Lib Dems from going to Labour. The SNP threaten dozens of seats that the Opposition would otherwise take for granted. Throw in the potential for minority government, the rarely trodden politics of ending a Coalition and the unique circumstance of a fixed term parliament, and anyone who claims to be sure of how it will play out is deluded or a liar. These are interesting times for those of us who are Westminster watchers – and sleepless times for those who stand for election.