In Britain, Conservatives Face Defeat in ‘Crisis’ By-Election

On Thursday, English voters in the constituency of Rochester and Strood, in the country of Kent south-east of London, are likely to return Mark Reckless to Parliament as the UK Independence Party’s (UKIP) second MP. When Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron promised a month ago to throw “everything we can” at the campaign, this wasn’t the result he anticipated.

Like Douglas Carswell, UKIP’s first MP, Reckless is a Tory defector. Carswell quit Cameron’s party in late August and romped home with an increased UKIP majority in a by-election in Clacton, his sea-side Essex constituency. Carswell’s departure was met with understanding, if not quite forgiveness: personally well-likely, he was acting on oft-expressed convictions.

Reckless’s exit, by contrast, engendered real anger, coming as it did at the opening of the Conservative Party conference in September. In spite of his regular rebellions, Reckless had not established a reputation as a conviction politician. And even though Reckless had a 10,000 vote majority in 2010, his constituency had under old boundaries been Labour since 1997. As one staffer put it to me, quite a few Tory MPs have a personal grudge against Reckless, whom they believe wouldn’t have won his seat without their support on local doorsteps in 2010.

But Reckless’s former colleagues may have to get over it. The Conservatives had little hope of beating Carswell, but in September, there was a lot of brave talk about how the Party machine would crush Reckless. As it’s turned out, it’s the Tories who risk being crushed. Polls put the Conservative candidate, Kelly Tolhurst, at least 10 points behind Reckless. Many Tory MPs now have little enthusiasm for making their required campaigning visits to Rochester, and the Conservatives, instead of predicting victory, are trying to price in defeat. The main reason the Tories are not in full-scale revolt is that Labour is in the midst of its own crises.

On the surface, a Reckless victory would be a shock. Clacton is demographically UKIP’s best constituency; Rochester ranks 271st. And while Reckless has a reputation as a populist Euroskeptic, he won his greatest fame by missing a vote on the 2010 Budget because he was drunk. The Conservatives had good reason to believe that they could hold Rochester.

But the Tory campaign has been inept. The EU’s ill-timed demand for an additional 1.7 billion pounds from Britain, and a bungled Commons vote over the EU Arrest Warrant, played into UKIP’s hands. Locally, the Conservatives held a rare postal ballot to select Tolhurst, an expensive exercise that backfired when she was named on just over 2,000 of the 5,688 ballots; it’s rumored that Reckless himself was named on as many as 1,600. For its part, formerly amateur UKIP is learning that professionally-run campaigns are about the concerns of the voters, not just what the activists are interested in. For the Tories, the real risk is that, as they lose Rochester, they are giving UKIP lessons in how to fight and win.

When I talked to Carswell earlier this week, he was cautiously optimistic about Rochester. His feelings about the Conservatives were far less positive: as he put it, “The Tory Party are to politics what Lehman Brothers are to banking: they’re rubbish.” Carswell argues that the Tories have failed to see three big changes that he believes are reshaping British politics. First, Labour losses no longer automatically mean Tory gains, or vice versa: as Labour support has cratered over the past six month, the gainers have been UKIP and the Greens in England, and the Nationalists in Scotland. The surge in UKIP support in Rochester has come at Labour’s expense.

Second, voters are angry that the rules of British politics have evolved in ways that empower the Westminster establishment, which is why Carswell and Reckless took the risk of forcing by-elections: In recent decades, MPs switched parties without seeking the consent of the electorate. Third, and centrally, while UKIP makes a lot of hay off popular opposition to the EU, and to Britain’s inability to control its borders because of its EU membership, its support comes fundamentally from voters who resent that inbred establishment. When I put it to Carswell that the dominant popular feeling was one of powerlessness, his eyes lit up. “Exactly,” he replied.

The outcome in Rochester may ultimately have only local significance. But that’s not how it feels. A Reckless victory will encourage new defections to UKIP and expand the number of seats that the two major parties might plausibly lose in the May 2015 general election. Right now, that election looks likely to give the balance of power to UKIP, the Scottish Nationalists, and the Liberal Democrats. So today, Reckless is a rebel. But in six months, his party might be the kingmaker.

 - Ted R. Bromund is the senior research fellow in Anglo-American relations for The Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

About the Author

Theodore R. Bromund, Ph.D. Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Originally appeared in The Weekly Standard