The Conservative Party is enjoying some good polling results this week and its members left Birmingham with smiles all around. Buoyed by a powerful speech from David Cameron and some tax cutting promises, the faithful departed to their constituencies with a spring in their step.
Things looked quite different only a few weeks ago when the newspapers were full of doom and gloom for the main governing party. The main reason were two high profile defections of Conservative MPs to UKIP, the party that flourishes on the margins of the political spectrum. The case of Mark Reckless, the copy-cat defector, is less controversial, mainly because Reckless's constituency is probably within reach of the Tories to retain. Douglas Carswell's defection however is a painful loss to the Conservatives, not least because Carswell is an articulate politician and a sharp mind, which makes you wonder whether or not he could be the canary in the mine.
However, here are some reasons why Carswell's defection will come to nought. First, UKIP's chances to gain a seat at the next general elections are thought to be approximating zero, if the bookies and election observers are to be believed. Whilst UKIP attracts plenty of disenchanted Tories (and some Labour voters), the electoral system is such that even a 15 percent swing to UKIP wont deliver sufficient votes in any single constituency to sweep them onto the green seats in Westminster. Things would be very different with proportional representation but first past the post will reliably swallow up any widely distributed yet shallow support for the party.
The other reason why Carswell's defection will remain an aberration however lies in his own motives. The BBC recently ran a town hall style debate with all candidates in the Clacton-on-Sea by-election and some voters. The question that hit home most of all came from a young woman. Why, she asked, if Carswell is so fed up with party politics, he would not run as an independent? Carswell's response was surprisingly weak, given that he built the argument for his defection on displeasure with party politics. He replied that Britain needs change and only UKIP can deliver that change. That's a tall order indeed. How a party can deliver change that has next to no chance to get its politicians elected next May remains unclear.
Carswell's real motive may in fact not have much to do with party politics but with a simple calculation about his own political future as an MP. He could easily have waited until next May and sought a seat to represent UKIP somewhere in the UK at the next general election. However, this way he would very unlikely be selected for Clacton-on-Sea, a seat in which he has a solid 12,000 vote majority. Chances are that he would have to fight in a constituency with minimal chances to be returned to Westminster.
That is not the case of course if he defects and forces a by-election early, as he in fact did. He was automatically selected for the constituency for UKIP, standing as the incumbent MP.
Whilst his chances to be elected as the first UKIP MP are therefore quite good, the long term prospects to be an effective MP for Claton-on-Sea are dire. He is likely to be the only UKIP MP for the foreseeable future, so all bets are on that, sooner or later, he will return into the Tory fold.
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