Douglas Carswell seems rather excited about the Spectator following him around as he campaigns in Clacton, but it’s not clear whether that’s just because our interview starts in McDonald’s. Tucking into a quarter pounder with cheese, the Ukip candidate seems on good form, expounding at length on the failure of mainstream politicians to connect with the electorate, and enthusing about his vision for the party in the future.
But a little later, as we plod around the streets of the constituency, his mood changes. He’s getting a lot of messages and calls about a BBC foreign affairs debate that he has pulled out of at the last minute. With each message, the former Tory MP grows more rattled. He seems genuinely frustrated that people don’t get why he’d choose to stay back in Clacton and ring the doorbells of people who are filling in their postal votes over going on national television to represent his party.
It’s not the first time Carswell has been absent from an event that involves representing Ukip. He wasn’t at the launch of a party poster, and he missed the first day of the party’s spring conference to record a regional politics show. That sort of thing went unnoticed when he was a Tory MP, but now as just one of two Ukippers in Parliament, Carswell’s movements are followed closely by journalists as a sign of whether or not he gets on with his party leader and is still comfortable being a Ukipper.
So what’s going on? Carswell is a furiously efficient campaigner, and runs the neatest campaign office I’ve ever seen. It seems out of character to cancel a long-planned media engagement at the last minute when he has a good local party helping him canvass what is now considered a Ukip safe seat.
He explains that he has to get round as many homes as possible to talk to postal voters. But couldn’t his team do that for him? Apparently not: Carswell seems quite fixated on the experiences of Michael Portillo and Chris Patten, who unexpectedly lost their seats while telling others how to win theirs. ‘They thought their people were out delivering their leaflets for them,’ he tells me, as he walks from house to house, delivering leaflets. ‘But they weren’t, and they lost.’ Targeting postal voters is very time-sensitive as so many of them send their ballot papers back within 48 hours of receiving them. So of all the times to cancel something, that window is the most appropriate.
In McDonald’s, Carswell claims that he didn’t care about what journalists and other Westminster types thought of the way he campaigned, anyway. He says that there is a ‘fleet of pundits in Westminster and I try and be nice to everyone and I try and be cheerful to everyone but if I’m not flavour of the month amongst them, so what?’.
It’s not just absences from certain party events, though. Ever since the first day of being elected as a Ukip MP, Carswell has had to respond to questions about his party leader’s choice to single out HIV as an example of health tourism that is costing the NHS dear. Carswell’s father, Wilson Carswell, was one of the first doctors to identify HIV/AIDS in Uganda (and the inspiration for Dr Garrigan in The Last King Of Scotland). As he celebrated his win in the Clacton by-election, Carswell found himself being asked about Nigel Farage’s comments that ‘people who do not have HIV’ were the sort who should be allowed to migrate to Britain.
‘The day after the by-election I had someone, a group of journalists shouting questions,’ he says. ‘I just sort of thought that they are all acting as a pack, as a mob and if this had been 20 or 30 years ago it would have been terrifying because I didn’t have political blogs to respond back.
‘I just think that behaviour says more about the values of the questioner than any answer I could give would tell you about me and what I do. So in a sense I don’t think it matters. I can send out emails and tweets to people who count, on subjects that count. I had a camera crew chasing me down the street the other day when Nigel was here, badgering me with one of those, what I might call a Guardianista type question and I turned round and I said I will answer that question if you can find a single person in this street who would have asked me that question.’
Carswell insists that he agrees with Farage on all the big things, but that each man uses his own words to express thoughts. ‘So I consciously don’t use sound bites, I express my thoughts and my ideas in my words and Nigel expresses his thoughts and his ideas in his words. That doesn’t mean we are not in complete agreement and we are campaigning for exactly the same things. People are looking for differences where none exist. Do you honestly think I would not let you know if I had disagreements with my party leader? Michael Howard knew about the differences I had with him, David Cameron knew about the differences I had with him and I wouldn’t hold back if I had differences of opinion with Nigel but I don’t.’ Well, he does admit that McDonald’s isn’t Farage’s thing, the Ukip leader being more of a pub man. But that’s as far as we get.
But Carswell is being asked to back up or disown Farage’s comments about HIV, which he repeated in both televised debates in the election campaign. So what’s his response?
‘To stop and pause for a moment,’ he says, as sternly as is possible when clutching a cardboard box of french fries. ‘I just think there is something a bit distasteful about people trying to make political points by bringing my father into this.
‘I am incredibly proud of my father and the work that he did was extraordinary: he woke people up to this extraordinary pandemic when people not only didn’t want to hear but were incredibly determined that no-one should hear.
‘I am extraordinarily proud of that so for me to answer the cheap points levelled at me would require me to bring my father into the General Election campaign and I’m not prepared to do that.’
On other issues, such as the row about a policy that the party briefly adopted on the ritual slaughter of animals, Carswell says he made the case ‘that common sense should prevail in the manifesto’. He says he has not changed his mind on housebuilding – he opposes the development of 12,000 homes locally – because the government’s current planning regime is not localist. He insists that he will never return to the Conservative party, and that no-one has tried to woo him back, either. But his campaign team do say – as a compliment – that this candidate could win the seat as an independent because of the personal brand he has built up.
That personal brand is quite extraordinary. Douglas Carswell is a backbench MP, and was in his previous incarnation as a Tory. Yet as we walk along the main streets of Clacton, he is stopped every 10 metres by people wanting a chat.
At one point he finds himself being heckled outside the the Conservative campaign office by Greg Hands, the Tory deputy chief whip who is leading a team of party activists that day. ‘See you in Fulham, Douglas!’ Hands bellows across the street, referring to the fact that his former colleague’s family live in London. Carswell waves, briefly, but is then beckoned over by a white van driver who wants to wish him all the best. Hands watches awkwardly from across the road.
Clacton likes Carswell not just because he knocks on its voters’ doors and eschews national media opportunities to do so. He also deploys a number of canny techniques to build his personal brand. A number of the houses we visit have ‘no cold callers’ stickers. But these ones look a little unusual. They have the parliamentary Portcullis on them. Peering round the porch door in one house, I see that on the back of the sticker is a picture of Carswell, along with his name and contact details. Every time that voter leaves their house, they see their Ukip candidate.
He also has very firm ideas about how his party should campaign nationally, and has been advising it on its target seats. How much of what he has learned as a Tory campaigner is he trying to pass on now to his Ukip colleagues?
‘A lot, I’m trying a lot. When you are fighting a European campaign, the trick is to make noise. This isn’t about making noise. We looked at some data earlier on and it showed that people tended not to think of Ukip as a local option and so we have had a good campaign that has focused on the qualities of good local people people like Jamie Huntman, Tim Aker, Victoria [Ayling].’
The party can’t just talk about Europe because ‘if you just talk about Europe you might as well get a soapbox and put on a rosette and be a caricature, but if people think of you as a politician talking in abstractions, they won’t trust you. You’ve got to earn the right to be listened to, you’ve got to earn the right to be heard.’
Even if Carswell thinks his new party is earning that right, it doesn’t seem to be translating into a Ukip surge in this election. Some seat forecasts suggest that he will be the only Ukip MP from 8 May onwards: a prediction he pooh-poohs, pointing to those who said Ukip had peaked after the European elections, that he would struggle to win back his seat after defecting and that Mark Reckless couldn’t win the Rochester and Strood by-election. He says he thinks ‘[Farage] will win and I think he’ll win fairly comfortably’, but refuses to talk about what might happen if the party leader doesn’t manage that.
But he does have a vision for Ukip’s next few years. He wants the party to become a force in the North of England ‘for ordinary people, people who are not career politicians and it would be a very loose platform, a very modern, I might even say post-modern party, very decentralised, very democratic and I would like so many people who feel so strongly that they are anti-politics to be part of it’. The party will do this, he says by tackling corporatism, leaving the EU, supporting mutuals and grassroots organisations. Technology, he says, excitedly, will help this. ‘I have to be a little careful during a general election in giving you the full Carswell view of where digital technology is going to take us,’ he says, breaking off from a long speech about the power of technology in improving lives and dispersing power. ‘I might sound slightly science-fictiony and I need to keep my feet firmly on the ground.’
But he can’t quite resist it, and in the next breath, he says:
‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a general election where we are arguing about whether or not there should be tax breaks for driverless cars? That seems like science fiction. We’ll be doing it in 2020. Driverless cars are going to have huge implications. Good, now, I must get campaigning.’
For the time being Carswell will have to drive himself round his constituency until the technology for a driverless car is ready. And it does seem, as he responds to messages about the cancelled debate, that for the time being he is going to have to get used to being misunderstood, as he sees it, by the media. He certainly seems more confident that he’ll be in a driverless car than that his way of working as a politician will be considered unremarkable any time soon.