FOR David Cameron to lose one backbencher to the United Kingdom Independence Party may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.
Oscar Wilde’s timeless maxim comes to mind after Tory turncoat Mark Reckless embarrassed the Prime Minister by winning in the Rochester and Strood by-election, albeit with a lower than expected winning margin.
Unlike last month’s Clacton poll when the Conservatives expected to surrender the seat to the respected Douglas Carswell, do not be fooled by Mr Cameron’s attempts to downplay this result’s significance.
After the flip-flopping Mr Reckless announced his intentions at Ukip’s annual conference in Doncaster, days after pledging his allegiance to the Tories, the PM made five forays to this bellwether constituency in north Kent after pledging to fight the by-election “with every fibre of my being”.
The words were even more prophetic as the ubiquitous Ukip leader Nigel Farage enjoyed a celebratory pint and talked, tantalisingly, of more defections.
This remains to be seen – Ukip’s majority of 2,920 votes was not the predicted landslide and fault-lines in Mr Farage’s party are finally being exposed.
Take the victorious Mr Reckless. He suggested that EU migrants could be forced to leave Britain – even though his Parliamentary colleague Mr Carswell favours immigration. Other senior members of the ‘purple party’ appear split on public spending and taxation, two critical issues in any election.
But the conundrum facing the Prime Minister is perhaps the most serious: why were the Conservatives unable to defeat the treacherous Mr Reckless, an individual described as “a brutish and low-grade specimen” by the respected political commentator Peter Oborne, in a county that has always been critical to the ebb and flow of Tory party’s electoral fortunes?
I think the reason is this. Mismanagement of European policy by the metropolitan elite that governs the country, and a failure by successive governments to acknowledge the economic and social consequences of EU freedom of movement laws on specific communities, has led to the electorate looking to bypass the three main parties in order to exert their influence. They are no longer prepared to be taken for granted, and rightly so.
Even though Sir John Major – a former leader still scarred by the recessions and splits over Europe that haunted his premiership 20 years ago – intimated with characteristic candour on Sunday that the economic crisis was fuelling this disenchantment, and that this mutinous mindset will change when wages begin to rise next year, this offers no comfort to Tory election strategists.
If Mr Cameron is to stage his much-vaunted referendum on EU membership in 2017, and he remains the only mainstream party leader committed to doing so, he needs an overall majority and simply cannot afford to haemorrhage seats to Ukip insurgents.
Not only do the Tories need to defend the 307 seats that they won in 2010 when Gordon Brown was such an unpopular premier, but they also need to win scores of constituencies which eluded the party before Mr Cameron was tasked with implementing his austerity agenda. With polling day less than six months away, the electoral arithmetic simply does not add up.
The only comfort for the Conservatives is that Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been left equally scarred by the Rochester and Strood vote.
This, after all, is a seat that Labour’s independent-minded Bob Marshall-Andrews held until 2010 and the party’s share of the vote collapsed by nearly 12 per cent. This was compounded by the stupidity of Ed Miliband’s shadow attorney-general Emily Thornberry after the millionaire Islington South and Finsbury MP posted a disparaging tweet showing a family home in Rochester draped in England’s flags.
Even though she swiftly resigned, this is an embarrassing episode which will return to haunt an already beleagured Ed Miliband – it plays into the narrative of those, and particularly the disenchanted ‘white van man’ demographic, who believe Labour has become anti-English. Will it be enough to take Ukip over the winning line in northern target seats like Rotherham? Time will tell.
As for the Liberal Democrats, their candidate polled a dismal and demoralising 349 votes – less than one per cent of the ballots cast. When this is compared to the 2010 Rochester result when Nick Clegg’s party came an honourable third with 7,800 votes, the risk of electoral annihilation next May remains significant.
With the Lib Dems in electoral freefall, Ukip winning a seat like Rochester and Strood (which did not even make the list of its top 200 targets) and the Scottish Nationalists on the march, next year’s election is the most uncertain since 1992.
But it would be remiss not to make two final points as the main parties come to terms with the scale of electoral discontent.
First, general elections should be won by the leader with the best vision for the future of Britain. Next year’s poll, however, is likely to be determined by the party that concedes the least ground to its opponents. What does this undignified electoral race to the bottom say about this country’s governance, calibre of leadership and the public’s lack of respect for MPs?
Second, the poisonous language being used to determine immigration policy smacks of gutter politics of the worst sort. It saw Mr Reckless advocate the repatriation of migrants, Labour’s hypocritical shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper suggest piously that “it isn’t racist to be worried about immigration” when her party has repeatedly shied away from this debate and the Tories distributing leaflets in which defeated candidate Kelly Tollhurst was quoted as saying that “she told the Prime Minister this area needs action, not just talk, on immigration”.
When local voters were asked for their views, they simply blamed foreigners for their troubles with a depressing level of intolerance which, frankly, would not have been out of place in Nick Griffin’s British National Party. There was not one word of recognition of the fact that Britain, and the NHS specifically, would be on its knees without migrant labour and that their work ethic should, in fact, be inspiring people from this country to roll up their sleeves rather than pleading poverty about their plight.
I am afraid that the Rochester and Strood outcome has simply made it even more difficult for there to be a rational and reasonable debate about Britain’s membership of the EU and what is best for this country’s long-term future.
Despite David Cameron’s pragmatism, notwithstanding the considerable constraints of coalition government, he simply has no answer to the political phenomenon which is Nigel Farage and is likely to be forced to make even more concessions to his Europsceptics.
He does need to remember that elections are won from the political centre and he must find a convincing way of reconnecting with those voters attracted by Ukip’s plain-speaking while also not causing offence to those outward-looking people who do not want the ‘little Englander’ mentality to prevail.
It is a balance that needs to be struck if Mr Cameron is to be returned to Downing Street – if only to spare us from the prospect of an Ed Miliband premiership. That is how low politics has sunk.