PRIME Minister David Cameron is facing a damaging electoral test after Douglas Carswell quit the Tories to join Ukip and announced he would stand down as an MP to fight his Clacton seat in a by-election.
The move by the leading eurosceptic MP has laid open the divisions within the Tory party over Ukip and could see more MPs follow suit.
It means with less than nine months to go before next year’s general election Mr Cameron is faced with the prospect of the anti-European Union party winning a seat off the Conservatives in a by-election.
A victory for Mr Carswell will fuel Ukip leader Nigel Farage’s claims that his party can hold the balance of power.
Mr Farage is already favourite to win the Thanet South seat in Kent and the Essex seaside resort of Clacton is also an area with strong support for Ukip.
The threat of Ukip becoming a force in parliament could also affect the Scottish referendum with the SNP claiming that it shows how different English eurosceptic politics is to Scottish politics despite Ukip winning a European Parliament seat north of the Border.
Explaining why he switched party, Mr Carswell said only Ukip could “shake up that cosy little clique called Westminster”, adding: “Many are just in it for themselves. They seek every great office, yet they believe in so little. Only Ukip can change this.”
He also dismissed the idea that the party was an “angry backlash against the modern world”.
He insisted Britain was a much better place than when he was born in the early 1970s except when it came to its political system.
“We are more open and tolerant. We are for the most part more prosperous,” he said. “More people are free to go out and lead the lives they want to lead than ever before.
“What was once dismissed as political correctness gone mad, we now recognise as just straightforward good manners.
“So much about Britain is so much better, except when it comes to how we do politics.
“They (the leaders) don’t think things through, they make one glib announcement after another. Then they move on to the next speech, the next headline.
“People have the right to expect a government that is answerable to parliament and a parliament that is meaningfully accountable to the people.”
He stressed he was not against immigration but said it was “reasonable” to be able to decide who comes to the country.
“Just like Australia and Switzerland, we must welcome those who want to come here to contribute. We need those skills and drive,” he said.
“There is hardly a hospital, a GP surgery, a London bus, a supermarket that would run without that skill and drive.
“We should speak with pride and real respect about first-generation Britons. But, like Australia, surely it is reasonable that we should be able to decide who comes?”
Mick Page, the Conservative leader of Tendring District Council described the decision as “a bolt from the blue.”
The council’s Labour leader, Ivan Henderson, said the defection was a sign of panic which may allow opposition parties to capitalise and make gains.
He said: “He’s seen the vote increasing for Ukip, seen the possibility he could lose his seat and panicked.
But fellow Tory eurosceptic MP Bernard Jenkin said Mr Carswell would “regret his decision” and was only helping to allow Labour win the next election.
Leader of the House of Commons William Hague said Mr Carswell had previously admitted the only chance of real change in Europe was a majority Tory government.
“It is a regrettable and deeply counterproductive thing to do, because the only chance of real change in Europe and upholding a referendum in this country in which the people of this country can decide to stay in or leave the EU is the election of a Conservative government next May, a majority Conservative government,” he said.