The two Clacton polls taken to date, the last by Lord Ashcroft on Monday, show Nigel Farage’s party with respective leads of 44 and 32 points respectively. Polls are a snapshot and not a forecast, as we all like to say on the site, but this one looks like an Everest to climb.
It’s an Everest both because it is rated as the most UKIP-friendly seat demographically (just as the mountain is labelled the world’s highest) and because the Party must try to climb it “because it’s there”. The Conservatives are a party, UKIP is another, and the two must contest elections.
A question that follows, though, is: how hard? Does it make sense to run the kind of intensive campaign that the Party ran in Newark, given the long odds in Clacton? Is it sensible throw the kitchen sink at Carswell – only to find that he is still standing? Wouldn’t that simply make him a bigger winner?
Furthermore, are Tory MPs willing to campaign in Clacton up to four times, as they were in Newark? As I reported last week, the 1922 has had enough of MPs being used to fill the gap where they believe other members ought to be – particularly if they are fighting marginal seats. They may be wrong, but that’s what they think.
David Cameron and the Whips must be careful how they handle a Parliamentary Party that feels like this. Carswell’s defection has also left Conservative MPs in a peculiar mood. Some sympathise with his views. Nearly all are furious about his choice. They are angry, sorrowful (in some cases), apprehensive, a bit bruised.
The next question is: never mind the machine in Clacton – what about the message to voters? The first option is to fight a clean campaign, based on attacking Douglas Carswell politically – and, more importantly, making the Tory case. The other is to fight a filthy campaign, based on attacking Carswell personally.
These are early days. There is as yet no Conservative candidate. Downing Street and CCHQ decided not to hold an open primary for the selection (as opposed to the caucus meeting that will take place), apparently on ground of cost and time. Such a primary would certainly have been a dramatic means of getting the Party back into the game.
None the less, some of the signals are good. A senior source told me yesterday that “we are determined to put our best foot forward”. The odd personal pop at Carswell is more likely to have come from the inventiveness of journalists than from that of CCHQ, though one can never be sure.
That source compared the Carswell defection to a family bereavement. “The same stages apply: shock, anger, acceptance,” I was told. “It’s a time to listen to what colleagues are saying.” This seems to me to be sound psychology. Michael Gove’s well-publicised lunch with Mark Reckless is another sign of this charm offensive.
There are still problems. It is epic tactlessness for Number 10 to keep calling Parliamentary meetings that are not hosted by the ’22 – as it did earlier this week in response to last week’s events. But, cross fingers, the Party seems poised to fight the right kind of campaign. Someone, somewhere is listening.
Footnote: a clean campaign is not incompatible with attacking Carswell – politically, not personally, that is. That the Party should support much of The Plan isn’t to say that it should back all of it. For example, I’m not convinced by its proposal to raze the foundation on which the NHS stands. There is a campaigning opportunity here.