Douglas Carswell was MP for Clacton from 2005-2017. His latest book Rebel: how to overthrow the emerging oligarchy is published by Head of Zeus.
It’s been a straightforward story about switchers. The defining dynamic of this election campaign so far has been the mass migration of former UKIP voters to Theresa May, giving the Conservatives a runaway poll lead.
I know why those of us who voted UKIP in 2015 are switching to May. Indeed, I made the move myself. The moment the Prime Minister triggered Article 50 seven weeks ago, beginning the formal process of leaving the EU, it was “job done”. Judging by the opinion polls, I wasn’t the only ex-Kipper who felt that way. Support for UKIP is in free fall.
To understand quite how significant the UKIP collapse is, consider some basic electoral maths; at the last election, the Conservatives got 11.3 million votes. Labour took a little over nine million. The sudden UKIP collapse now puts the 3.8 million votes they got last time into play – with the potential to change rather dramatically the electoral arithmetic in scores of constituencies across the country.
Ex-Kippers aren’t moving back to any old mainstream party. They are going overwhelmingly to May. Some of the pundits sound a little puzzled by this, but they shouldn’t be.
Ever since last June’s referendum, a succession of Remain-voting MPs have whined about the result. Labour and Liberal Democrat spokesmen have, at times, come close to implying that there is something morally suspect about those that voted Leave. “You’re bigots!” they have seemed to say.
Having only heard insults from Labour and the Lib Dems since the referendum, many of those that voted Leave are being pushed – as much as pulled – towards Team Theresa.
Almost every day for the past twelve months, the sort of posh left-wing voices that get to go on the BBC have sounded as if they are seeking to delegitimise what the people decided. “The demos was duped”, arrogant opinion-formers imply. Gina Miller’s efforts to frustrate Brexit were reported with great glee. Millions of voters have noticed. Eurocrats in Brussels have issued what sound like carefully choreographed threats, designed to cajole and intimidate. “Brexit cannot be a success” Jean Claude Juncker insisted.
For many voters, June 8th is a chance to answer back. Giving Mrs May a massive mandate would cut through all that nonsense.
What we are seeing is not just former Tories ‘coming home’, which would be enough to see the Conservatives win in places like my former constituency, Clacton. We are seeing people who have never voted Conservative before making the move, too. So much so, in fact, that constituencies like Sedgefield, where I cut my political teeth against Tony Blair’s massive majority at the 2001 general election, are also whispered to be in play for the Tory party.
“But its so unfair!” cry some of my former UKIP colleagues. “We spent years saying we should leave the EU, and now everybody is voting for May to do what we said all along!”
Yup. Its true. But there are no prizes for being right first in politics. Nor will there be any prizes for my former party if they put themselves in the absurd position of wanting May’s Brexit negotiations to fail. Success in politics is, as Milton Friedman once put it, making sure that even the wrong people have to do the right thing. And that is precisely what we are seeing today.
The biggest switcher in this story is, of course, the Conservative Party. What we are witnessing right now is one of those magnificent moments in British political history; a great Tory pivot. As has happened before on some of the great issues of the day, the party rotates – “shamelessly” you might say, “pragmatically” others would insist – 180 degrees.
For much of the 1920s and 30s, the Conservative Party was hopelessly wrong over appeasement. Yet during the late 1930s, the party pivoted, turning in favour of rearmament just in the nick of time – and rewriting its collective memory of what it stood for as it did so.
In the 1960s and 70s, the upper echelons of the Conservative Party were obsessed with a failed Keynesian economic orthodoxy. But in 1978-79, the party pivoted, ditching the old ideas in favour of the new. By the mid-1980s, it was hard to find a Conservative who hadn’t been a monetarist all along.
So, too, today. The Conservatives have rejected four decades of failed Euro orthodoxy, and are now fighting an election advocating EU withdrawal. Soon it will be quite impossible to find a Conservative who was not always an advocate of an independent Britain. And it might be quite impossible to find a Kipper at all.
Vote for Mrs May!