Tory Schism as Douglas Carswell defects to UKIP

The decision by odd-ball MP Douglas Carswell to resign the Tory Whip and seek election (Harwich) as the first UKIP MP in Westminster has been described as a watershed moment for the Conservatives. Following his defection, rumours swirled around Parliament that a number of other rebel MPs would join him, but to date, Mr Carswell fights on alone.. 

The by-election will take place on 9 October, around the time of the Conservative Conference, and will undoubtedly prove a distraction as the PM rallies the troops in the last big get-together before the June 2015 General Election.

It’s hard to gauge the significance of this moment, but it is the latest chapter in what I believe is a long running schism in the Tory Party that could leave it out of power for a generation. The schism is not so much over Europe, although that is the banner around which the Tory ultras have gathered, but more over the soul of the Party, whether it should continue to adopt a centrist stance, or instead plough on down the Thatcherite road.

I’ve argued before that realignment in British politics may be on the way, either via changes to the voting system (although efforts by the Lib Dem Coalition partners to deliver a form of proportional representation were scuppered three years ago), or through an ideological split in Conservatism similar to the genesis of the SDP in the 1980s.

There’s no doubt that the Cameroons are ideologically closer to the Blarities and the Orange Book Lib Dems (Nick Clegg, David Laws) than they are to the hardliners on the right. Most successful Governments during the last forty years have governed from the centre, and there is little evidence to show that a party of the right has much appeal to the mass of the electorate, particularly women and ethnic minorities.

Both William Hague and Michael Howard lost heavily to Tony Blair in 2001 and 2005 respectively on a right of centre ticket, and many political analysts believe voters preferred a Tory-led Coalition with the Lib Dems to insure against a rightward agenda.

So why not encourage the right-wing to leave and form their own group, with UKIP (A UK national party), for Ed Miliband’s socialists to be the party of the left, and for the broad centre ground to unit around a new political grouping, that would dominate the electoral landscape for the next twenty years?

Although UKIP leader Nigel Farage will tell anyone who’ll listen that UKIP has appeal to Labour working class voters as much as right-leaning Tory nationalists, the truth is that it’s the Tories who always stand to lose the most from UKIP coming of age. And the private polling from Tory peer Michael Ashcroft confirms that Tories are highly vulnerable in seats where there are a good proportion of older voters who like Farage’s brand of ‘stop the world, I want to get off,’ and his anti-Westminster establishment rhetoric. Seats like Claction, for example.

Another politician doing well by attacking Westminster is Alec Salmond. After winning the second of the televised debates on the Scottish referendum, the No campaign’s long lead over the SNP/Yes campaign has narrowed alarmingly, to the extent that there is a serious risk that Salmond will emerge triumphant in the next fortnight.

No wonder Ed Miliband was out in Scotland campaigning hard this week. His 41 Scottish Labour MPs are essential if he is to stand any chance of Labour returning to power in the future. The SNP has cleverly attacked Labour for being part of the Westminster elite, and this resonates with Scottish voters who don’t profess to see much difference between the Tories and the Labour Party.

The referendum is too close to call, but already there have been some apocalyptic warnings about a Sterling crisis, and a sharp reverse back into recession if the answer is yes.

If Mr Cameron loses the Scottish Referendum, his position will be very much weaker. Boris Johnson, tilting to rejoin the House of Commons after 2015, could be the man Conservatives turn to rescue them if Mr Cameron resigns, and Boris  (as well as George Osborne) have both noticeably shifted to the right on Europe in recent weeks. Perhaps Mr Osborne is starting to feel the Election is slipping away from the Conservatives, and is preparing for a leadership bid after the Election.

But why would the Tory right – by consistently seeking to undermine the Prime Minister – run the risk of losing the Election, lose the chance to fight a referendum on Europe in/out, and put up with Labour for the next five years? The answer is, I think, that the right are quite prepared to give way to Miliband in 2015, gambling that a weak Labour Prime Minister will mess up the economy and open the door for the Tories in 2020, having purged themselves of the centrist metropolitans whom they detest. 

As ever, the purity of the ideological right trumps practicality. 

For our politics is the art of compromise; as one columnist put it, politicians seek to do something good, and in doing so, make other things worse. Douglas Carswell is not a man of compromise; in fact he said himself he is a man of honour, a clear sight who believes Westminster has failed the electorate and the future lies in digital democracy and individual empowerment.

Mr Carswell will never manage to achieve power – the voter and our system of Government won’t wear it, but he and his ilk are quite prepared to destroy the Conservative Party while they try.