In the past few minutes, Tory MP Douglas Carswell has announced at a special press conference that he is defecting to Ukip.
This is a surprise for a number of reasons. The first is that Ukip had given all impressions that they’d stopped trying to tempt MPs over after talks with several backbenchers failed. The second is that Carswell had appeared increasingly loyal to David Cameron after the Prime Minister pledged to hold a referendum in the next Parliament. In a long address covering his dissatisfaction with politics and the Conservative party, Carswell told the press conference that he thought ‘they’re not serious about it’ and that the Prime Minister was only aiming to get sufficient changes that would get British voters to support staying in the European Union.
‘David Cameron has made up his mind, he wants to stay in. This is all about positioning for the election.’
Update, 11.15: Carswell has announced that he is forcing a by-election in his constituency. This is a real Black Swan moment for David Cameron.
There are many huge ripples from this defection. But the Conservative party will have to consider how on earth to respond to Carswell, a popular MP who has increased local Tory membership and his majority. He is a maverick, for sure, but a maverick through deep thinking and intellectual self-confidence. And that is difficult to dismiss. There are many backbenchers whose defections would have been easier to wave off.
Other problems: you’d have to be a very, very loyal party footsoldier to agree to go down and help in the by-election fight against a former colleague. A small split in the party will emerge simply over whether you’re an MP prepared to knock on doors on behalf of whoever the Tory candidate is, or whether you’d rather stay away and tacitly congratulate Carswell on taking a stand.
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