Nigel Farage and UKIP produced another promised earthquake on Saturday with the defection of Conservative MP Mark Reckless – culminating in him standing down and triggering a by-election in his Rochester and Strood constituency.
Reckless becomes the second Tory MP to defect to UKIP in the past month following Clacton’s Douglas Carswell in late August. Carswell also stood down and called a by-election which will be held next Thursday where he is widely expected to become UKIP’s first elected MP.
MP defections aren’t all that unusual – many have “crossed the floor” over the years – but these two are extremely significant. Both Carswell and Reckless have seeked the permission of their electorate to represent them under different colours in the form of a by-election – something that hasn’t happened for decades. Not to mention that UKIP currently have no representation in the House of Commons.
Unlike Clacton, the stakes are much higher for both the Conservatives and UKIP in Rochester and Strood. Carswell has built up a firm following over the past 10 years and Clacton has been labeled one of the most receptive constituencies for UKIP in the country. Reckless will not be afforded this luxury. He was only elected as an MP in 2010 and the seat has a near 10,000 Conservative majority. Moreover, Rochester and Strood didn’t originally feature in UKIP’s top 250 target seats.
Many Conservative activists in the area feel betrayed by Reckless, who had previously told them that he would not be defecting. The reception Reckless has received on return to his constituency hasn’t been as welcoming as Carswell’s according to the media anyway. Yet his decision to call a by-election instead of just sitting under a UKIP banner is a noble act. He could very well lose, although I imagine that he has research telling him he has a strong chance of re-election.
A loss in Clacton for the Conservatives could be brushed aside as something of a one-off. Indeed, Carswell is seen by even his former party as something of a one-off, albeit somebody who has commanded a great respect. But if Reckless carries Rochester and Strood, the Tories UKIP headache will develop into a severe migraine. Potential other Tory defectors – Farage assures us there are some – may think they’d be better off on a UKIP ticket next May.
And you wouldn’t blame them. Staunch Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party are surely only still there because of the 2017 referendum promise. It’s clear that David Cameron has no intention of pulling the UK out of the European Union. If he is still in office in 2017, he will claim some bogus renegotiation before begging everyone to vote to stay, in a campaign that will be based on fear.
For UKIP, a win in Rochester and Strood is the only option. A failure and momentum is halted, other potential defectors will become doubtful over whether they could hold their seat standing as UKIP. However, if they win it will be something of a game-changer and their biggest success to date. The likelihood of more defections will increase and belief that UKIP may win enough seats in Westminster to hold the balance of power next year will strengthen. The prospect of one or two UKIP MPs could genuinely develop into 10 to 20 – particularly if Cameron maintains his weak stance over the EU.
Early betting has Reckless around a 1/2 favourite to win back his seat but much will remain a mystery until some opinion polls are released. Expect the Tories to plough millions into this by-election as they did in Newark back in June. They will believe that winning here is very possible, as much as it is a necessity. Staving off the UKIP assault here would be a major boost.
Yet something tells me the UKIP juggernaut will roll on and that Reckless will win. For those whose priority is Europe, they are the only option. Cameron has kicked the issue into the long grass for far too long, and the only thing that would keep a genuine Eurosceptic with the Tories is the fear of letting Ed Miliband in to 10 Downing Street.
But Labour are also threatened, many Old Labour voters are flocking to UKIP in their droves despite the notion that they are a right-wing party. UKIP’s recent conference aimed to appeal to those Old Labour people, and if they could win the by-election coming up in Heywood and Middleton, UKIP will be as much a Labour problem as they are a Tory one.
The Establishment as they are so often labelled these days are extremely worried. Farage has teased further defections, with another potentially coming on Wednesday, when Cameron will give his conference speech to the Conservatives. No one knows when they will happen, who they will be, and the impact it might have. We are in very exciting times.