As the MP for Clacton leaves his second party in three years, we salute his courage, his strength and his defatigability…
Cheer up! The world is getting better.
Douglas Carswell, 2014
If he didn’t like me, or our policy on immigration, why on earth did he join the party in the first place?
Nigel Farage, 2017
The echoes he’d like us to hear, of course, are of Winston Churchill – the man who ratted on the Conservative Party to join the Liberals, and then re-ratted to return to the Tories. But then, all Conservatives like to see themselves as Churchill, from Jim Hacker all the way down to Boris Johnson. There are, surely, more pertinent precedents we could look to for the career of Douglas Carswell.
How about George Gardiner, for example, the Tory MP for Reigate who was deselected by his constituency party, joined James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party, lost his seat in the 1997 election and then slunk back into the Conservative fold.
Or possibly Robert Kilroy-Silk, the Labour MP who was later elected to the European Parliament for UKIP. He went on to make an attempt on the leadership and, when that failed, he flounced out to form his own party, Veritas (subsumed by the English Democrats in 2015).
And now there’s Carswell. He was elected to Parliament for the Conservative Party in 2005 and 2010, and for UKIP in 2015. Last week he declared himself an independent, though no one has definitely ruled out the possibility he might yet rejoin the Tories.
Carswell served his political apprenticeship in the dark days of Blairism. He first came to media attention in the 1997 general election, when he was the minder for the Tory Chicken. This, lest we forget, was a man dressed in a chicken suit deputed to stalk Tony Blair on the campaign trail, to illustrate how frightened the Labour leader was of having a TV debate with John Major. In the next election, in 2001, Carswell stood against the prime minister himself, coming a creditable second in Sedgefield. And in 2005 he finally got a winnable seat, which he duly won.
In his address to voters in that election, he boasted that he had been ‘campaigning against the European Union for over fifteen years’. And, following the 2010 election, he argued strongly for a referendum to confirm the Lisbon Treaty (long since ratified). So everyone knew that Europe was a big deal for him. And everyone also knew that he thought he should have been offered a ministerial job under David Cameron.
Even so, his announcement in August 2014 that he was leaving the Conservatives to join UKIP was a surprise. It even, for a moment, seemed very significant indeed.
Because 2014 was the high-water mark for UKIP. In May they had come top of the polls in the European Parliament elections with 4.38 million votes: the largest total they have ever achieved. Cameron had already offered the electorate a referendum on the EU, but it hadn’t halted the UKIP charge, and some on the Right believed the party was on the verge of something big.
That summer in the Daily Mail, for example, the increasingly absurd Simon Heffer was arguing that the Conservatives needed to trade. ‘Although they have doggedly refused to entertain the idea, they will have to consider an electoral pact with UKIP, or face at least five years out of government,’ he wrote. And, he predicted, ‘the party’s grandees will, I am convinced, make a humiliating U-turn.’
Carswell’s defection was swiftly followed by that of Mark Reckless, and Nigel Farage hinted heavily that this trickle was but the start of what would become a flood. It wasn’t. No one followed them. And when Reckless lost his Rochester & Strood seat in 2015, Carswell looked increasingly isolated: a Southern Tory, when the party saw its future in capturing the North from Labour.
He later claimed that he’d joined UKIP to decontaminate the brand, which would have been a thankless and pointless task if it were true. But in 2014 it didn’t really feel like that’s what he was doing. It felt far more like a small fish fleeing a big pool for something more compact.
Which may be unfair. Carswell has always been a thoughtful politician. He’s written serious assessments of where the democratic system might be headed in the internet age, and – even before Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader in 2015 – he had identified Corbynmania as part of the same anti-establishment trend that was pushing Donald Trump to the fore in America.
But UKIP has little time for thoughtful politicians. In Alan Sked’s original version of the party, Carswell might have found a niche, but under Farage – the man Sked labelled a ‘dim-witted racist’ – he had no obvious part to play. He and his leader clearly had nothing in common, save for the demand for an EU referendum.
Once that was out of the way, the gloves were off. Carswell mocked Farage’s vain search for a knighthood, and Farage accused him and other ‘Tory posh boys’* of fighting scared of immigration when – Farage was convinced – this had always been UKIP’s trump card and the key to winning the referendum.
Last month Farage called on him to leave the party, and Carswell has now duly obliged. It was one of the few times he did what his erstwhile leader wanted.
So why are we singling him out for attention. Well, it’s the by-election question, really.
Back in 2014, Carswell’s position was clear. ‘As someone who’s always answered directly to the independent–minded people of Essex, there is only one honourable thing for me to do,’ he declared. ‘I must seek permission from my boss, the people of Clacton. I will now resign from Parliament and stand for UKIP in the by–election that follows.’
This time round, he’s changed his mind: he won’t be putting himself up for a re-ratting re-election. He’s come up with attempted justifications, and others have done so on his behalf, but the abiding impression is that he’s only prepared to call a by-election when the result is likely to be embarrassment for the party he’s just left, rather than for himself. The man who was once a chicken-minder is himself chicken.
We started by looking for precedents. So we should note that Douglas Carswell wasn’t actually the first MP for UKIP. That was Bob Spink in Castle Point, elected for the Tories in 1992, who resigned from the party in 2008 and spent eight months sitting under a UKIP banner. Then he became an independent and lost his seat in 2010. Carswell stands a better chance of surviving than that. Probably. He should at least try, in the interests of democracy.
* Just for the record, both men were educated at public schools, Carswell at Charterhouse (founded 1611), and Farage at Dulwich (1619).