Tonight Clacton is set to return the first elected Ukip MP to the House of Commons. The Conservatives have already tried to factor in Douglas Carswell’s defection as something they can cope with – and this has been made quite a lot easier by the tribal anger that Mark Reckless provoked when he announced he was doing the same thing. But the consequences for Ukip of having an MP in terms of their appeal to the electorate are not so easily dismissed. They can now tell voters they really are a serious party, rather than a bunch of no-hopers.
Nigel Farage sees it as a ‘Krakatoa’ moment. And one important impact it has had on the political narrative is that it is now much more difficult for critics to say that Ukip peaked in the European elections. Those defections – coming just at a time when the Conservative party had decided that any would-be traitors had turned their back on Farage – gave Farage more momentum as the General Election approaches than even quite sympathetic commentators thought he’d have.
The Conservatives have tried their best to do something that will provide at least a small distraction from tonight’s historic result, which is to announce they will be holding a postal primary to select the new Tory candidate to fight Mark Reckless. The reason they’ve suddenly been converted to a selection process that the party seemed to be turning its back on is opportunistic: the Tories want to suggest that they are the party that really represents local people in the constituency, whereas Ukip barges its own candidates aside when the Conservative incumbent defects.
They will play a very different campaign in Rochester and Strood to stop the momentum and deter any more defectors. Indeed, the plan is currently to mount a very aggressive and personal campaign. This may well wear down Ukip support for Reckless – or it could have the opposite effect, with the party’s target voters surmising that once again the Westminster Establishment is lashing out wildly and unreasonably.