Conservative MPs have said that they will refuse to campaign against Douglas Carswell, warning that if the party fights too hard against UKIP it could cause a damaging split on the right.
An unnamed former colleague told the Times: “Douglas is a Conservative. Where is the appetite going to be from our activists to fight him? What are we going to say on the doorsteps? Vote for our brand of Conservatism, not his?
“I came into politics to stop socialists ruining our country, not to fight other Conservatives. It is going to be absolutely miserable.”
Carswell left the Conservative Party on Thursday and joined UKIP, sending shockwaves through British politics. He immediately announced he would resign from parliament and seek a renewed mandate from the people of Clacton under his new party label. If he wins, he will become UKIP’s first ever elected MP.
While some MPs may refuse to go, other have said they will reluctantly campaign against Carswell. Bernard Jenkin said: “Nobody feels comfortable about campaigning against a friend and colleague, but if Douglas is campaigning for another party, I will be campaigning against him.”
There is increasing evidence that the Conservative Party is worried about the effect Carswell’s defection will have on party support. Yesterday, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who took part in the 1992 rebellion against the EU’s Maastricht Treaty, called for the party to “step up the gas and make sure the public understands” the Conservatives’ commitment to hold an EU referendum.
The Prime Minister also recognised that his plans to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership will never persuade some MPs. “Some of them want to leave the EU altogether irrespective of any renegotiation that I manage to complete,” he said.
Although the Prime Minister said that Carswell’s decision was “quite bizarre” and would help Labour, some Conservatives believe that a Labour victory in the Clacton by-election will help the party in the long-run because it would demonstrate that splitting the right-wing vote would let Labour in.
One MP said: “I would love to point to Clacton and say: vote Ukip, get Labour.”
Labour have indicated, however, that they will not pour serious resources into fighting the by-election, even though they held the seat until 2005.
On Thursday, the Executive Director of right-wing group Conservative Way Forward said that the Conservative Party should not field a candidate against Carswell. Paul Osborn said: “I think the @Conservatives should not put up a candidate in Clacton. Do what Labour and LibDems did to David Davis.”
In 2008, then Shadow Home Secretary David Davis resigned his seat to force a by-election on this issue of civil liberties. The election quickly turned into a farce, however, when other parties boycotted the vote.