John McTernan: Is Boris ready for a by-election?

Douglas Carswell, right, has forced a by-election by defecting to Ukip. Picture: Getty
Douglas Carswell, right, has forced a by-election by defecting to Ukip. Picture: Getty
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The defection of a Conservative MP to Ukip could be the safe-seat opportunity Boris Johnson has been waiting for, writes John McTernan

No plan survives contact with the enemy, as von Moltke very nearly said. It may have originated as a theory of war, but it often seems like an iron law of politics too. All summer David Cameron has brushed off calls for the recall of parliament. He has no interest at all in his lack of strategy for “Syraq”, as some commentators now call IS-occupied parts of Syria and Iraq, and even less in being seen to be buffeted by events. The Prime Minister has handled the soap opera over Boris Johnson’s return to the Commons well, and has been holding his nerve over the independence referendum. Inactivity is, it seems, his core strength. But just when he thought it was safe to get back into the water, Douglas Carswell surfaces, defects to Ukip and calls a by-election.

What does it all mean? Well, first and foremost, full employment for commentators. This will be a real-time preview of one of the core battles in the next general election – Farage v Cameron. We know the theory. In 2005, the Labour Party gained a 66-seat majority on 36 per cent of the vote because Ukip took an average of 1,500 votes per seat from the Tories. That was before the massive recent growth in its support that has placed it currently as the third force in UK politics in terms of support in the polls. Some have predicted the Ukip bubble would burst, but so far it hasn’t. The European and local elections – outside London and the big cities – were a triumph for Farage and his party, not least due to a new-found professionalism. The Newark by-election was good for Cameron and the Tories at the time, but it was only a temporary relief. Now Douglas Carswell has put Cameron’s feet to the fire.

Carswell is a fascinating MP. He is a genuine thinker, not because he has come up with any brilliant policies but because he is starting to pose the right questions that politics needs to answer in our age. His book The End of Politics: and the Birth of iDemocracy is equal parts brilliant and bonkers.

His techno-libertarianism takes him to the point where we will be liberated from government itself. As they used to say in Vietnam, “never happen”, but buried in his writing is a rare recognition by a politician that the networked nature of modern life – mediated by modern technology – changes everything. Just as the industrial age produced a hierarchical, top-down politics in its own image, so a networked knowledge economy requires a distributed, network form of politics and government. He has an equally endearing eccentricity. He once chased a suspected shoplifter in his constituency down the road and pinned him to the wall, only to utter the magnificent phrase: “You probably don’t want to hear this, but I’m your local MP.” That was probably the last thought on the miscreant’s mind.

Does any of this, though, matter? Journalists love Carswell because he is good copy – he always gives good quotes. This is one of the reasons that the instant opinion on social media was that he would easily win the seat for Ukip because of a strong personal vote. This, I think, is a huge error.

Now, I love MPs. I’ve worked with them and, at many times, for them. Indeed, I’m not ashamed to say that some of my best friends are Members of Parliament. But the best of them have a very clear understanding of what they bring to the table in an election – 1,000 to 2,000 votes. The rest is the party label. At the last election, Douglas Carswell got 53 per cent of the vote in Clacton. It is a rock-solid Tory seat. That’s not because the constituency voted Carswell, it’s because they voted Conservative. There’s a reason why ambitious politicians of all parties choose to be selected in safe seats – they know precisely how limited their personal vote is.

Now, this is obviously a more complicated fight than a normal general election, where, by and large, as the country goes, so goes the constituency. By-elections have a drama and a momentum of their own. Voters certainly hate unnecessary elections of any sort and regularly punish parties who create vacancies by elevating MPs to posts abroad. The gamble here is that a battle of ideas can be fought and won. What Ukip have going for them is that the electoral experts Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin see this as one of the party’s best prospects. That’s not surprising; there’s a stretch of Essex bordering east and north-east London that is trending Ukip as those parts of London become Labour. There’s a real demographic dynamic. But there’s a countervailing force too. Clacton has a strong non-Tory core vote. It used to be part of the Harwich constituency – which Carswell won from Labour in 2005 by only 920 votes. Even with a powerful swing to the Tories, 25 per cent voted Labour, and nearly 40 per cent of voters supported it, the Liberal Democrats or the Greens. Not enough to matter in a general election – but if the Tory vote is split by Ukip, then you only need 34 per cent to win, and Labour is probably already close to that in the national polls.

In a funny kind of way, both Ed Miliband and David Cameron need to adopt the same strategy. Roll the dice. Go hard, or go home. Labour has a voter-friendly policy for this commuter-belt town – stopping rail fare increases. They need a popular, ideally populist, candidate. A win here would set Miliband on track for government next year. The Tories lack popular policies – and they cannot show weakness here by tacking towards Ukip; it would cost them too much elsewhere across the country. What they need is a big beast to contest the seat for them, and take the fight to Ukip. Luckily for them, they have one who has just said he wants to return to the Commons. Step forward, Boris, a safe seat is yours – if you’ll fight for it.