November 20th, 2014 will be a dark day for the Conservative and Unionist Party of Great Britain. An Ashcroft poll from yesterday gives UKIP a 12-point lead in the constituency; only some sort of miracle will stop Reckless keeping the seat now. At least with Carswell you could say there was an X factor going on, a cult of personality driven by a man who had never quite fit in with the Tories. Mark Reckless is a dull, uncharismatic individual with no requisite claim to fame. The message from Rochester and Strood will be clear: if Reckless can win under a UKIP banner, any Tory MP can.
The question is, will they try? After Rochester, I really can’t see why, if you’re a Eurosceptic Tory, you wouldn’t make the plunge. I suppose you could make the calculation that if there’s a hung parliament, and Labour ends up as the largest party off the back of the fact that UKIP have taken a host of formerly Tory seats as a result of backbench defections, they will end up sabotaging the dream (In/Out referendum, I mean). But this doesn’t quite add up – surely one could think it just as likely that by going UKIP and retaining your seat, you would be free to campaign for Out with no reservations.
I suppose one could look at the modern Conservative Party and conclude that it was pretty Eurosceptic anyhow, and that there was no need to jump ship for that reason. Or I guess there is such a thing as good old fashioned loyalty. Or the worry that UKIP can win by-elections but not seats in a general election. That last one has been yet to be truly tested.
Having said all of that, another incentive for Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers to defect to UKIP is that come the New Year it will be too late for there to be a by-election called. So they will essentially be given a freebee. However, as I mentioned previously, if Reckless can win within UKIP, anyone can, etc, etc, so how much of a real carrot this is I’m not so sure.
If I had to guess, I think we’ll see a few defections between now and the general election, probably the other side of Christmas most of them, but there won’t be a glut of announcements. I wait to be proven wrong, and the usually to be taken for granted discipline of the Conservative Party seems to be melting in front of our eyes, but I can’t see more than two or three more pre-May 7th. Five UKIP MPs going into the general election is still pretty bad though, both for the Tories and the state of British liberalism.
Ultimately, how the two defections and subsequent by-elections hurt the Tories most of all is that it has very effectively sent a message to voters who will be wavering between the Conservatives and UKIP that voting for Farage’s bunch is not a wasted vote. Don’t worry about voting tactically, just vote with your heart. This probably won’t result in a lot of UKIP seats being gained in which a defection isn’t involved, but it may lose the Tories some seats they would have otherwise have held. UKIP could come in second a lot places where the Tories find themselves in third place come May 7th.
I close with this thought: does Farage have a Labour MP ready to UKIP defect up his sleeve? I doubt it, but by the same token I wouldn’t be all that shocked if indeed he did.