What will be the impact on the Conservative party of Douglas Carswell’s defection?
Even though there is some excitement this morning about other meetings that Ukip has held with Conservative MPs, it is worth pointing out that those meetings were firstly held a while ago, and secondly that a number of those MPs who did meet Stuart Wheeler decided not to meet Nigel Farage because that would have been a betrayal in itself of their party. Some did meet Farage, but decided not to make the leap. Carswell was one of those MPs who initially did not make that leap, so it is unwise to say that there will be no more defections. But when Coffee House spoke to most of those MPs yesterday, none of them had changed their mind as a result of this defection. This could change if the Clacton result is dreadful for the Tories, but also if David Cameron fails to manage his party well over the next few months – not just when it comes to European policy, but the other matters that Carswell cited in his statement.
But even if Carswell’s defection is the last, he has still poured a bucket of ice over David Cameron’s autumn, when his relations with his party were still quite warm and cordial. Because the Tory MP has now increased the pressure on his old leader to articulate more of his intentions towards European reform. I reported in this week’s politics column – before Carswell had announced his shock defection – that eurosceptics already expected Cameron to set out his intentions for the renegotiation. And yesterday, even those MPs who were saying Carswell had made a mistake were pressuring Cameron to set out the detail of his reform. Bernard Jenkin said that on the World at One, and John Baron yesterday said ‘greater clarity as to which powers we are hoping to repatriate, should we win the next election, would do Number 10 no harm at all.’
There will also be increased pressure on Cameron to heal the split on the Right. Andrew Bridgen, another rebel who has in recent months declared his loyalty to the Prime Minister, tells me:
‘We have got to know that the Prime Minister has a walk away position, we have got to know what we want, what our red lines are on Europe.
‘It is sadly disappointing that so many people I’ve met in my time as a Conservative, that Conservative-minded people are voting Ukip. We need them back in the Conservative party, and Douglas has just left. David Cameron is the only one who could rectify that. He could still broker a deal with Ukip.’
Mark Pritchard, who yesterday argued that more defections were unlikely, tells me:
‘Hopefully the Conservative candidate will win the by-election, but if Douglas Carswell does win, it will underscore the potential risk of Conservative seats being lost to Ukip candidates at the general election, thereby helping Ed Miliband into Downing Street and denying the British people a European referendum. It would be self-defeating for all of us who want to fundamentally reconfigure Britain’s relationship with Europe.’
Some MPs are privately arguing that the Tories shouldn’t field a candidate against Carswell (who looks as though he will also be fighting the ex-Ukip candidate too). Others declare that while they like Carswell, he is dead to them politically, and they’ll fight him vigorously. Some believe Cameron should approach Carswell if he does win the by-election and strike up a coalition deal with him. Either way, this autumn is starting terribly for the Prime Minister on one of the few fronts he thought he could be confident of an easy ride: the party management problems are back, as well as international turmoil and all the other problems he’s been warding off all summer.