Thursday, 28 August 2014

First Thoughts on Douglas Carswell's Defection

Today has seen the news that Douglas Carswell, MP for Clacton, has defected to the UK Independence Party, and will contest a by-election.

A short while ago, I questioned the Daily Mail's idea of how Boris Johnson could become Prime Minister, but had a caveat - namely Newkip. To sum up, if there were to be a small contingent of UKIP MPs in Parliament after the May 2015 general election, then Conservative MPs who voted against a Conservative/Liberal Democrat Queen's Speech and lost the whip as a result could either defect straight to UKIP or form a new party that would have a relationship with UKIP akin to that between the Liberals and the Social Democrats in the 1980s.

At this point it may seem very odd to talk about one of the most pointless elections in the United Kingdom in the 21st century - the Northern Ireland Assembly election of November 2003. With no devolution, it didn't have a role to fulfill. But, look at Lagan Valley. Top of the poll there was the Ulster Unionist Party's Jeffrey Donaldson, the sitting MP for Lagan Valley.

And look closer - failing to be elected as a Democratic Unionist Party candidate was Andrew Hunter, at the time the MP for Basingstoke. Donaldson and Hunter had one thing in common - neither of them were MPs for the parties they were standing for in the Assembly election.

Hunter had been Conservative MP for Basingstoke since the June 1983 general election, but had lost the Conservative whip in October 2002 when he confirmed he would contest the Assembly elections for the DUP, but didn't become a DUP MP until December 2004. Donaldson had been UUP MP for Lagan Valley since the May 1997 general election, but in June 2003 he - along with Antrim South's David Burnside and Belfast South's Martin Smyth - resigned the UUP whip in the House of Commons.

In the June 2001 general election, the UUP ended up 1 seat ahead of the DUP. The June 2003 defections put the DUP ahead - but surely this would be temporary.

In January 2004 Donaldson did something that was game-changing - he defected to the DUP (Burnside and Smyth followed this by accepting the UUP whip again). The DUP's lead over the UUP could no longer be a temporary thing. And at the May 2005 general election, the DUP returned 9 MPs, to the UUP's 1, Sylvia Hermon in Down North.

I remember realising a couple of things at the time - Donaldson's defection was bad news for the UUP. But I thought it would be bad news for the then leader of the DUP, Ian Paisley.

This might sound odd - after all, Paisley had achieved the position of being leader of Northern Ireland's largest party, and in in October 2005 was appointed to the Privy Council, being given the honour traditionally awarded to the UUP leader, as if the Establishment was recognising the DUP as the voice of Unionism.

Alongside Donaldson, Arlene Foster, who had been elected as a Member of the Legislative Assembly for Fermanagh & South Tyrone - and is now the Minister for Enterprise, Trade & Investment - also defected from the UUP to the DUP.

So, why had I considered it to be bad news for Paisley? Yes, the DUP would be getting stronger and bigger, but it is easier to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond. A Bennite might welcome the 1997 election as finally bringing a Labour government, but would also know that this was a larger Labour in which Bennite views were in the small minority. Paisley's party could grow - with Paisleyism becoming a minority viewpoint.

And, in a similar fashion, Donaldson and Foster were the modern, younger, professional politicians who could bring over the sort of middle-class Unionists who traditionally voted UUP.

Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader and Member of the European Parliament for South East England, has been chosen as UKIP's candidate for Thanet South. Just imagine if he wins.

UKIP MEPs seem to focus on silly stunts at the European Parliament and have poor attendance records. Such an attitude won't go down well in the House of Commons. Picture Farage arriving at Westminster next May as the MP for Thanet South, and then being greeted by his parliamentary colleague for Clacton - who will have a decade's experience of being an MP, and knows the hard slog and committee work and debating Bills and constituency surgeries. And if UKIP is in discussion with other Conservative MPs about defecting, then Farage would arrive to find an established contingent of UKIP MPs who have been together as a group for months, with a parliamentary leader, receiving Short money, getting used to their parliamentary leader being allowed to ask a question at Prime Minister's Questions, and all the things that are part and parcel of being a minor party in the House of Commons. The more Conservative (and maybe Labour Eurosceptic) MPs who defect, the bigger the pond that Farage would find himself in, full of experienced MPs with him as the newcomer.

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