The Telegraph’s Chris Hope has a very interesting interview with Ukip Treasurer Stuart Wheeler in which he says seven Tory MPs had lunch with him to discuss a possible defection to the party. Wheeler says these talks took place more than a year ago, and since then the excitement about possible defections has clearly died down.
Why aren’t Tory MPs interested any more in defections? I’ve spoken in private to most of the MPs who held talks with Wheeler – and some with Nigel Farage too – and most of them say they feel there is still a good chance of their party winning in 2015, and that David Cameron’s EU referendum pledge did give them hope that he was finally listening to them. This was something Farage accepted when I spoke to him earlier this month. He said:
‘If Cameron hadn’t delivered the referendum pledge then there is no doubt there were a number that were going to come and he did just enough.’
The Prime Minister has also tried to improve relations with his backbenchers, while Lynton Crosby has given MPs a campaigning zeal and a clear message to shout. This means that some of those possible defectors are much more pro-Cameron than they were a year ago.
But I’m not sure it’s just the Tory party’s improving fortunes that dampened the enthusiasm of possible defectors. There’s a possibility that Farage himself was a deal-breaker, too. One of those who held talks tells me:
‘When I looked Farage in the eyes, eyeball to eyeball, I felt this was a person I could not trust and do business with.’
Others turned down the chance to meet Farage after lunching with Wheeler, feeling this would be a betrayal of their party. But it’s interesting that the Ukip leader, so charismatic in public, wasn’t able to convince backbenchers of his trustworthiness in private.