A high-ranking Conservative has admitted that Rochester and Strood will fall to the UK Independence Party this Thursday, and that the Conservative party’s best hopes are now to keep the “defeat to single digits”. Meanwhile, six more Conservatives are rumoured to be considering defection to the insurgent party.
Just a few weeks ago the Conservatives were talking up their expectations of winning the seat, with talk of throwing the kitchen sink at the by-election, called after the sitting MP Mark Reckless defected to Ukip and announced his intention to re-contest the seat.
Cabinet ministers have made repeated trips to Rochester in an attempt to shore up the Conservative vote. Prime Minister David Cameron has himself visited the constituency four times, most recently earlier this week when he urged Labour voters to lend their support to the Conservatives to keep Ukip out.
“I would say to people who have previously voted Labour, Liberal, Green or anything, that if you want a strong local candidate and don’t want some Ukip boost and all the uncertainty and instability that leads to, then [Conservative candidate] Kelly [Tolhurst] is the choice,” said Mr Cameron.
Asked whether the Conservatives still think they are in with a chance of winning the by-election, a Conservative member of the Cabinet has told the Observer: “We have got no reason to think the published polls are not true. They have shown a 12- or 13-point Ukip lead. If we were able to squeeze it to single digits, then great.”
Making it clear that the Conservatives are relying on Labour doing even worse, thus deflecting any poor press coverage, the source added: “Our vote is holding up OK. We are at 30 percent, maybe even 33 percent. It is not bad. Ukip are in the 40s. But Labour have absolutely capitulated and collapsed in a seat that they held until 2010. There are at least as many questions for Ed Miliband as for us. We are fairly relaxed about the whole thing, as I think it is priced in at this stage.”
The Conservatives are also relying on the by-election being an anomaly, with the seat returning to the Conservative fold at next May’s general election, a hope given some credibility by a recent poll by Lord Ashcroft which found that, amongst decided voters, 36 percent were planning to back the Conservatives in May, against 35 percent who would be backing Ukip. Just 21 percent were Labour supporters.
Mark Reckless’s win could also pave the way for further defections to Ukip in the coming weeks, as sitting Parliamentarians will feel more assured of victory if he can hold his seat. According to the Express, insiders are claiming that John Baron, the Member of Parliament for Basildon and Billericay, may also make the move.
When asked whether he might make the move to Ukip on BBC’s Newsnight program last month, he responded “You should never say never in politics,” adding: “My very strong preference is to stay within the Conservative Party.”
The paper claims that “five others could also make the switch in the coming weeks, according to sources,” although it names no names. Likely contenders are thought to include Philip Davies, an ardent Eurosceptic and top of the leader board for Conservative rebellions this year; Peter Bone, another rebel who has called for the coalition to be disbanded; and Philip Hollobone, a Eurosceptic who Ukip declined to run against in 2010.
Speaking to the Express last night, Reckless said “if Ukip can win here then Ukip can win across the country.
“I don’t know whether it is an earthquake or a tsunami but we are seeing the potential realignment of our political system and it is conceivable that, as the political system changed in the 1920s with Labour replacing the Liberals, we may see a similar change over the next decade.”
His colleague Douglas Carswell, who recently became the first elected Ukip Member of Parliament told the paper that he had recently been canvassing in Rochester, saying: “I was in a traditional Labour ward and what really struck me and was reminiscent of my Clacton experience was that people that I just wouldn’t have even considered worth talking to to try and get them to vote for me are now willing to vote because the old party grounds are so contaminated in the eyes of the voters.
“In that traditional Labour ward there were a huge number of ex-Labour voters, who never in a million years would vote Conservative and who have given up on Labour, will now vote for Ukip.
“If things go the way I hope they will in Rochester on Thursday, then I think it is further evidence that Ukip are the first party in generations that have sussed out how to unlock the first-past-the-post system. The implications of that are huge.
“Clacton was seen as a very Ukip-friendly seat. Political gurus have looked at the numbers and have said Rochester is the 270th most Ukip- friendly seat. If we can do what the polls suggest we might do next Thursday, there are 269 other seats upstream of that which could be unlocked too.
“That is the potential, although nothing in life is ever certain.”