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Expert Comment: Carswell's Leap in the Dark

0119 Prof Bill Jones Monday 1 September 2014

Following Douglas Carswell MP's defection from the Conservative Party to UKIP, Bill Jones (Honorary Senior Fellow (and former Professor), Politics and History) looks at the implications for both parties.

'You can't make a policy out of an argument' Lloyd George once said and few could deny that he knew whereof he spoke. His famous feud with Asquith split the dominant party of Gladstone and consigned it to the outer margins of political activity by the mid part of the 20th century. The Conservative disagreement over the Corn Laws in 1846 did not destroy the party but kept it out of power for a generation. The Liberals' falling out over Ireland caused the defection of the Liberal Unionists to the Tories in 1886, thus ending the Liberal hegemony over the 19th century and handing it to the Tories for the 20th. In 1981 the Social Democratic Party was born out of a Labour Party caught between Wilsonian revisionism and Bennite radicalism; the result was a further sixteen years of Tory rule. More recently John Major's small majority government was crippled by an active euro-sceptic minority, helping to keep his party in opposition until 2010 and even then denied Cameron the overall majority he so craved and expected.

So divided parties and election victories just do not happen together. Douglas Carswell's defection to UKIP is not comparable with those initiated by Peel, Chamberlain or even the Gang of Four but, just like Enoch Powell's 1974 urging of the nation to cast its votes for Labour - the day euro-scepticism was born says Mathew D'Ancona , it might be a growth point for further Tory flight in the future. The same columnist takes the MP to task, recalling that Carswell was delighted in January 2013 when Cameron laid out his plan to renegotiate UK EU membership and call an in-out referendum during 2017. Now it seems Carswell has lost faith in either Cameron's commitment or ability to effect a meaningful new UK relationship with the EU and has jumped ship.

Andrew Rawnsley wondered how an MP, self - described 'libertarian radical democrat', reconciles his views with 'joining a party as authoritarian, reactionary and anti-immigrant as the Kippers'. There is also the little discourteous matter of how the already appointed UKIP candidate for Clacton, Roger Lord, has been cast aside in favour of the defector. All very enjoyable for Labour who know full well that, whilst UKIP threaten to take votes off them in northern constituencies, its main threat is to scores of Tory marginals in the south. UKIP is a separate party but plays the role of a potentially huge defecting swathe of Tory voters. Will others follow?

So far, those euro-sceptic MPs seen as likely defectors have denied any intention of doing so, and probably none will, but this development is enormously damaging for Cameron in that: his word and competence have been challenged by a highly regarded cerebral MP; the resultant by-election will dominate headlines throughout the conference season; and an elected UKIP MP will give the party a huge boost in its efforts to overcome the disadvantages of a first past the post voting system as we move towards May 2015. UKIP have been strengthened and the chances of a Labour win thereby made more likely. If Cameron does retain office at that time he will face huge pressures to pull off a renegotiation which few consider EU leaders will contemplate, plus a growing phalanx of colleagues determined to cut the connection to Brussels and possibly prepared to join UKIP if this decision is not forthcoming. Carswell's defection is no blip then, to be easily forgotten in the rush of events, but is it an augury of something else, a major bifurcation in Britain's traditional party of government? And what do the polls say about Carswell's chances in the by-election? The Survation/Mail on Sunday poll gave the defecting Tory 64% of the vote with the Tories themselves merely on 20%.

[1] Sunday Telegraph, August 31st, 2014

[2] Observer 31st August 2014.

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