Tories on the back foot

Daniel Harvey looks at the fallout from Douglas Carswell’s defection

It is no mean feat nowadays to keep news as big as a major defection secret for long, but the UK Independence Party leadership seem to have managed to do so last week. The journalists who went along to the Ukip press conference were expecting something along the lines of news of a big donation to the party. Instead what they got was Douglas Carswell, the Conservative MP for Clacton, announcing that he thought the Tory leadership was not serious about Europe and that, whereas he was a ‘real moderniser’, the prime minister was really a politician for the status quo.

It has been said that despite the initial shock, this did not come as a huge surprise to the Tory leadership, given that Carswell has been one of the more awkward members of the Europhobic right of the party. Apparently a bit of a loner even on the backbenches, he has never sought office, according to Iain-Duncan Smith - which is hardly surprising, given not only his rather eclectic anti-European Union views, but also his support for policies like the right to recall MPs and the open primaries the Tory Party initially trumpeted but has let slide since forming the government alongside the Liberal Democrats in 2010.

The fact that something like this has surprised some commentators is doubly strange in view of the fact that Stuart Wheeler, the major donor to the Conservative Party who made a £100 million fortune speculating on gold prices, has been actively courting rightwing Tory MPs to get them to defect to Ukip. Apparently there are eight with whom he has been having serious talks in the recent past. The initial frantic phone-round of the leading Eurosceptics by the party whips in the first hour after Carswell’s defection told the Tory leadership what they had guessed - that there were no others thinking about leaving for now.

But there have been some very public musings from some of these MPs. Zac Goldsmith has said that he would consider the move if Ukip were not quite so “hopeless” on green issues - his own particular hobby horse. It would actually be a much harder move for MPs other than Carswell to make. Clacton is, no doubt about it, a special case - as Dr Matthew Goodwin, author of Revolt on the right, has pointed out, it is probably the seat most positively disposed to Ukip in the country. This former marginal seat, where the Labour vote has collapsed, has a very old, overwhelmingly white electorate and there is a large, disaffected Tory voting base. By contrast, other Eurosceptic Tory MPs would face certain defeat if they attempted to seek re-election on a Ukip ticket. The fact that Carswell has set a precedent by standing for re-election after switching sides has probably discouraged others - only Clacton is such a safe bet. In fact the previously selected Ukip candidate, Roger Lord, angrily claimed that Carswell had made him “unemployed” - he is even considering standing on the Conservative ticket for the seat just to spite him!1

Many MPs have been publicly supporting the idea of a Ukip-Conservative pact of some kind, but really what they are still after at this point is teasing more concessions out of David Cameron. Specifically what this means is a commitment along the lines of what Steve Baker, MP for Wycombe, says: namely a pledge that any failure on the part of Cameron to renegotiate the terms of EU membership will lead him to campaign for a ‘no’ vote in the promised referendum on EU membership in 2017. John Redwood, a former cabinet minister, talks along the same lines:

The task before the party in the run-up to May is to reassemble the Conservative family. This can only be done through strong advocacy of a new relationship with the EU. To have a chance of a successful renegotiation, the EU has to understand there are conditions that would lead to the exit of Britain.2

There is a growing tendency among the Tories along these lines, with a substantial minority of MPs becoming seriously discontented with Cameron’s strategy.


It seems unlikely in the extreme that Cameron is going to seriously get the 27 other countries in the EU to agree to a whole tranche of one-sided treaty changes within just a few years. His humiliation over the appointment of Jean-Claude Junker as EU president earlier this year was a case in point, demonstrating the real extent of Britain’s isolation in Europe. What Carswell apparently heard discussed at a seminar held between top officials in the Conservative Party and the German Christian Democrats was that the real point was to do the absolute minimum necessary to convince the electorate to stay in Europe after the next election.

It is obvious that Cameron’s promise of a referendum after this ‘renegotiation’ was always really just a tactic for winning in 2015. Eurosceptic MPs are right in suspecting that the party leadership is really aiming to keep Britain in the EU in the best way they can. The occasional whelping coming out of the United States is instructive - the last thing it wants to see is its closest ally, which has loyally been acting as a spanner in the EU integration works for many decades now, not only pull out, but also be potentially weakened through Scottish independence. At the same time, Sir Mike Rake, president of the Confederation of British Industry, has warned Cameron about the damage being done to the economy through “political uncertainty” on Europe as well as Scotland.3

As Tim Stanley put it in The Daily Telegraph, the right of the party is now predicting that “Cameron will win some cosmetic changes to Britain’s relationship with the EU, declare that there is no longer any need to leave, and then campaign - along with Labour, the Lib Dems, the BBC, the Anglican church and Stephen Fry - to stay in the EU”.4 If this can be called a strategy for defeating Ukip and finally putting the Europe question to bed, then it is one that is seriously flawed.

It requires at the very least that the new settlement won from the EU has a modicum of plausibility. Given the emphasis from both the Tories and Ukip on immigration, which is much stronger in determining how people say they will vote, it would surely have to include a substantial change in the right of free movement - perhaps a way of Britain permanently setting limits on immigration to the UK from within the EU. It seems very hard to see how this is going to be agreed by other countries, given how fundamental it is to the whole project.

You have to seriously question how sensible it was for Cameron to try to out-compete Ukip on this turf in the first place. Ukip has a clear answer to the immigration ‘problem’ - and that is pulling up the drawbridge by leaving the EU, and imposing draconian limits on migration from outside Europe. That is the only answer that is going to satisfy voters who want immigration curbed. As has been pointed out, despite being a large group, these voters are not enough to win elections by themselves - or, as the liberal Tory and ex-MP, Matthew Paris, has put it in The Times,

There are plenty of nutters out there and maybe the nutters do need a party to represent them, though the slow-dawning disappointment that awaits the Tory right in the coming decades is that there will never be quite enough nutters to form a government.5

You cannot help but agree, but this is not something Cameron has been willing to accept, as he attempts to hold the party together. He has drifted to the right, despite his cuddly rebranding exercise over such questions as gay marriage, which he used to detoxify the Tory image, and has apparently revived most of the manifesto he helped write for Michael Howard in 2005.

The major problem here is that his campaign promise of cutting immigration to the “tens of thousands” is in tatters. Well over half a million people made their home in the UK last year, it turns out, which is exactly as it was for most of the Labour years, and, unfortunately for the Tories, that has been driven by increased numbers from within the EU.


Despite what has happened, it seems entirely possible that the Tories will emerge as the largest party in next year’s election, given the tendency of sitting governments to consolidate their support as polling day approaches. But strategists are telling Cameron that it is impossible for the party to win outright unless Ukip support falls to roughly half its current level. Research consistently shows that three Tory voters switch to Ukip for every one that comes from Labour. Nigel Farage knows that his claims to the contrary are completely false in this respect.

Amongst Conservative pundits and supporters attitudes are split, as you might expect. In the bulk of the commentary in The Times and The Daily Telegraph, as well as on Conservative Home, the grassroots Tory website, attitudes towards Carswell are mostly adulatory. Words like “honourable” and “principled” have been thrown around. At most, Carswell is described as “misguided” for opening up the election to Ed Miliband, which might put the kibosh on the possibility of an in/out referendum completely. In any case, a whole raft of Conservative MPs have said they will refuse to campaign against Carswell in the by-election.

For those in the Tory centre, however, the situation is much more serious. A leader in The Times echoed Polly Toynbee’s phrase about those “dangerous Trotskyites of the right”, while Matthew Parris has antagonised a lot of Conservative supporters by indignantly describing the Eurosceptics as wreckers. It seems Carswell timed his defection to inflict maximum injury on his party, and that is indicative of the Tory right wing’s intransigent strategy in general. According to Parris,

Ukip and the Tory irreconcilables are perfectly relaxed about the possibility that Mr Cameron could lose the next election; they do not want the EU referendum that would follow his victory. They want the present Tory leadership to stumble and fall, and, from the internal battle that would follow, they see the emergence of a new kind of party led by a new kind of leader from the anti-European right.6

In this line of thinking, the key for the right is to actually get the kind of referendum that they can win, on their own terms, which means Cameron and Osborne might have to be defeated first.

Parris could be right in thinking that a “Tory schism is all but inevitable”, but in that case it is simply about playing for time, whilst ensuring, in his words, that “the breakaway zealots don’t get the house, the car, the company, the client list, the trademark or the brand”.

There may be a small handful of defections after Carswell achieves his thumping victory in Clacton (he has a 44-point lead at the moment), but the real fate of the Conservative Party will hinge on the razor-thin margin of victory or defeat in the next election. The potential successors to Cameron and Osborne have almost all taken a line slightly to the right of theirs.

Many are resigning themselves to the seeming inevitability of Boris Johnson’s ascendancy to leadership and eventual premiership. He has parachuted into the constituency of Uxbridge in London, stating that he would campaign against EU membership if the renegotiation does not convince him. Some have been trying to get Boris to stand against Carswell in the Clacton by-election, but it goes without saying that he is not such an idiot as to fall into that trap.

Left response

Anti-EU populist nationalism is, of course, not confined to the right. The left has trailed Ukip in its own way - particularly in the form of No2EU, the left-nationalist front made up of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the RMT union. However, trying to compete with Ukip is more insane for the Marxist left than it is for Cameron. The homeopathic share of the vote No2EU received says everything we need to know about the viability of that project.

On the other hand, hoping for rightwing infighting to allow a Labour victory by default is lazy in the extreme. Labour too have joined in the Ukip chasing with its rhetoric about curbing immigration, and is not immune from the possibility of losing one or two eccentric MPs to Farage’s party. There probably will be no major defectors from this quarter, but that cannot be ruled out completely. There is a substantial nationalist streak within Labourism - it is part of its political logic in the first place. ‘Blue Labour’ has taken this tendency to a whole new level.

If the left is ever going to win in Britain, it must be on the basis of its own internationalist and socialist principles. It is not the case, as Phil Hearse of Socialist Resistance implies on the Left Unity website, that just being something - anything - to the left of Labour will cut it against the dominant rightwing ideology.7 You cannot outdo Ukip in picking up cheap, populist support, when Farage and co can rely on a whole raft of rightwing media support, feeding on deep levels of popular prejudice.


1. The Times August 29 2014.

2. The Sunday Times August 31 2014.

3. www.cbi.org.uk/media-centre/press-releases/2014/05/political-uncertainty-climbing-up-business-risk-register-cbi-president-sir-mike-rake.

4. http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/timstanley/100284529/douglas-carswell-shock-turns-out-some-tory-mps-are-still-a-bit-right-wing.

5. The Times August 30 2014.

6. Ibid.

7. http://leftunity.org/the-truth-about-ukip-and-the-tory-right.