The defection of Douglas Carswell and his subsequent by-election victory in Clacton undoubtedly rocked the Conservative Party, but the Carswell affairs is something of a sideshow in a much larger story. A committed Eurosceptic and a beacon for Tory libertarians Carswell was a popular figure within both the Tory Party and his constituency. Losing him to UKIP was a blow, but his subsequent electoral success was not surprising. Simply put, it is easy to see Douglas Carswell’s personal appeal.
By contrast Mark Reckless cuts a far less impressive figure. He has neither Carswell’s mind, his personability, nor his political gravitas. Further, while Clacton, perhaps the archetypal depressed southern ex-seaside resort, appeared prime for a UKIP win, Rochester and Strood is, according to recent data, only the 271st most friendly seat towards them. With this in mind, winning there should be a relatively straightforward exercise for the Tories.
However, these are changing political times and the guarantees of old no longer seem to ring true. Though the Tories experienced a post-conference boost in the polls, many insiders fear further defections unless stronger opposition is offered to UKIP. Should Reckless pull off a coup in Rochester then other disgruntled backbenchers may well be tempted to jump ship. Polling also suggests that the margin between the two parties could be as little as nine points: certainly enough to rattle Tory HQ. Perhaps more worryingly, online bookmakers Betfair’s exchange market puts a UKIP victory there at 2/7, with the Tories at 3/1. Such odds do not bode well and it is unsurprising that the Conservatives are willing to commit a significant amount of their resources to achieving victory in Rochester.
Tory strategy seems to be hinged on playing the long game. The by-election will take place on 20 November, giving them little over five weeks to utilise the party’s full strength. Numerous visits from MPs – front and back bench alike – are expected and Chairman Grant Shapps’ is keen to bus in activists from across the country. With many party members angry at what they see as Reckless’ “betrayal,” this strategy makes sense and may well serve to further galvanise the party, prepping them for next May’s General Election. Though UKIP are in the ascendancy, they cannot draw upon either a robust party machine or a committed pool of activists in the same vein as their opponents. Though this was clearly demonstrated during the Newark by-election, there is no room for complacency.
For UKIP the hope will be that the Tory machine underlines their insider status, reinforcing distinctions between the two parties. The sense of distain felt by many voters towards Westminster is palpable and the ‘anti-politics’ of UKIPs insurgency resonates deeply. The Conservative message of “vote UKIP, get Miliband” also seems to have limited traction. Much like Labour’s focus on “the cost of living crisis” it has become something of an empty slogan, which will appeal to core Tory voters, but few others.
For the Tories winning in Rochester is becoming essential both for their electoral viability and their party unity. If they lose David Cameron may well be forced to accelerate his policy on Europe and offer new concessions to his party’s more radical factions. In contrast, victory would be an almighty scalp for Nigel Farage and underline the unquestionable impact they have had on contemporary politics.
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