WHEN the MP Douglas Carswell last week defected from the Conservatives to Ukip, the SNP rejoiced that it was a “double whammy” to those campaigning for a No vote in the independence referendum.
The Nationalists’ estimable Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, said that the affair overshadowed Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to Scotland to scaremonger (or, as it said on the PM’s itinerary, to address a CBI dinner).
As if this first whammy wasn’t bad enough, a second whammy was on its way. Clacton MP Carswell’s defection to Nigel Farage’s party showed that the Westminster establishment was “dancing to a damaging Ukip agenda”. What do you mean you’ve never danced to an agenda? Then you’ve never been at a party round at Angus Robertson’s place.
But metaphorical mishaps to one side, Robertson’s point was specifically that more Euroscepticism in the House of Commons meant a Yes vote was needed to prevent Scotland being wrenched out of the European Union, and more generally that Westminster is a terrifying place full of deranged right-wingers and that we should save ourselves while we have the chance.
Robertson was certainly correct about the first whammy. Cameron’s trip to Scotland was indeed overshadowed. The defection of an MP over the issue of EU membership – on which the PM has promised a referendum should he win the next election – was a catastrophic event. It opened up those wounds over Europe that have damaged Tory unity for decades and it took Cameron’s focus off Scotland.
The second whammy might have seemed punchy enough but the blow didn’t land squarely at all. Robertson maintained a campaign line – Scotland is unique on this island because it doesn’t elect Ukippers – which fell apart in May when Scotland ignored this convention and elected a Ukip Member of the European Parliament.
Though Scotland hadn’t, it turned out, especially feared the election of a Ukip politician, Robertson clearly hoped there was mileage in the sheer terror that might be unleashed by the prospect of Ukip wielding any sort of power at Westminster.
The flaw in this argument is that, on the face of things, the only person who stands to benefit from Carswell’s action – and its repercussions which will be grave, painful and, I should think, often gruesomely entertaining to watch – is Labour leader Ed Miliband.
Last week, Peter Kellner, president of one of the largest polling companies – YouGov – gathered his thoughts on the likely outcome of the 2015 General Election. Based on his extensive reading of the polls, he foresaw a dead heat between Labour and the Tories on 294 seats each, with the Liberal Democrats on 35 and others taking 27.
In these circumstances, it is difficult to see how exactly a Tory party plunged back into the depths of what members and opponents alike have described as its damaging obsession with Europe will be able to hold on to the centre-ground voters so crucial to Cameron’s success in 2010. For every new voter the Conservatives might hope to win by moving further towards Ukip’s agenda, it could surely count the loss of one or more of more moderate views.
Another key argument from the SNP and Yes Scotland is that a No vote will mean Scotland is “ruled by Tories” after the next General Election. Carswell’s defection, with its lift to Miliband’s prospects, is, at least, a single whammy against that Nationalist line.
But undoubtedly more interesting than what Carswell’s decision might mean for Labour, the SNP or the Conservatives is what it might mean for Ukip.
The defection of Carswell may be a test for Cameron’s leadership but I suspect it will prove a far greater one for Farage’s ego.
For a baffling length of time, Farage has been able to breeze through politics on the back of some fairly incoherent policies delivered in the style of any decent jumped-up little golf-club bar bore.
It hasn’t much mattered that Ukip’s manifesto has been a poorly considered rag-bag of “ideas” because good old Nige is the anti-establishment man and he stands up for what matters and all that tiresome claptrap.
And one hardly has to be a psychological profiler to recognise in Farage a real glee in his position as party top dog. Though Farage may speak the clichés about Ukip not being a one-man band, his party quite clearly is.
I have been to Ukip press conferences and I have listened to Farage while the candidate whose campaign was under discussion skulked at the back, entirely surplus to the requirements of his leader. Now, Douglas Carswell with his obsession with Europe and his slightly wide-eyed expression might appear to be the sort of Tory right-winger of the crackpot tendency, but he is a serious ideological thinker. Carswell does not do his politics in the bar as Farage chooses to.
It may be that this new relationship will prove mutually beneficial: the flashy Farage given weight by the involvement in his party of a politician of some substance. Perhaps they’ll be the Jeeves and Wooster of the debate over immigration.
I doubt it.
Ukip is an unwieldy creature. Even as Farage was basking in the glory of his coup, trouble was brewing.
Carswell took the step of resigning as an MP on defecting. He could have simply stayed put as a Ukip member but instead will fight a by-election. This is both perfectly honourable (if an MP changes his party then the people should be given a view) and designed to do maximum damage to Cameron (if Ukip thrashes the Tories in the by-election, it’s bleak news for the PM). But his strategy was a little undermined by the announcement of Roger Lord, who previously fought Clacton for the party, that he would seek the Ukip nomination.
By Friday, Lord was threatening to rip Carswell’s throat out. What a mess.
Douglas Carswell’s motives may be pure but I believe he has made a foolish mistake. He won’t lend Ukip any credibility. Rather, it will drain what little he has left. «