Mark Reckless, the Conservative MP for Rochester and Stroud, has defected to UKIP and announced his intention to resign in order to fight a by-election. Reckless’ defection marks the second in so many months and has been timed for maximum impact on the Conservative conference which started yesterday.
So what does this mean in practical terms?
First the resignation will only come into effect once Reckless has been appointed to an office of the Crown – an historic device which is the only mechanism by which MPs can resign. The Conservative Party will then need to move a writ to set a date for the by-election. It is likely the Prime Minister will want more time to allow activists to deluge the constituency – this will be both practical support for the candidate and also a warning to others of what will happen should they defy No. 10 in a similar fashion. A by-election by late October is a reasonable assumption.
What does this mean for politics?
The loss of another MP to UKIP is undoubtedly a blow for the PM. Cameron bargained that a commitment to a referendum in 2017 and a renegotiated settlement with Brussels would stop exactly this type of development. Instead some MPs have demonstrated their utter lack of faith in the PM – a tellingly manifestation of his casual attitude towards cultivating and sustaining personal relationships with his own backbenchers.
Nigel Farage will be hoping that more MPs follow suit. Certainly the release of UKIP’s own polling this past weekend will be focusing minds – the surveys show them winning, or very close to winning, in several seats such as South Thanet and Thurrock. The question must now be asked: who next? There are a number of possibilities but members of the ‘awkward squad’ have come out to call for unity; although we saw similar calls in the wake of Douglas Carswell’s defection.
And added consideration is that the UKIP conference this weekend has focused heavily on Labour voters. If Farage is to show that his outfit really does have cross-party appeal and is a threat to the entire establishment he could do with banking some non-Conservative defections from the backbenches.
There is also the need to take a step back from the heat of the moment. Yes the hall went wild when Mark Reckless was introduced by Farage. Ukippers screamed even louder when Reckless announced he was joining the party. Combined with the presence of two hundred or so anarchists, trade unionists and others protesting across the road it all made for a heady atmosphere. However the reality is that the latest polls from Saturday night show the Conservatives and Labour almost neck and neck, with Labour enjoying a slim 2 per cent lead whilst UKIP’s support is actually down 1 per cent to 17.
Can the Conservatives, and indeed Labour, ignore UKIP? No is the short answer. If the three main parties want to boost their support they need a UKIP strategy. They also need to rediscover a voice for their members and allow their parties to speak, vent and live again. The Conservative conference has now begun and it will be a very slick operation. But that’s the issue for all three main parties –they have become too polished.
If there is no solution forthcoming then UKIP’s plan is simple: leverage support to the max in constituencies that can be split. Force further defections and continue to pound home the message that they can win in key seats. The ultimate aim – replace the Lib Dems as kingmakers in a future coalition government.