*Editor’s Note: This article was written prior to Cameron’s press conference Friday morning.
UKIP – the insurgent right-of-center party that has been shaking up the British political scene for the past couple of years, and which won elections for the European Parliament earlier this year, pulled off another coup today when it announced the first defection to its ranks from Prime Minister David Cameron’s governing Conservative Party.
Douglas Carswell, MP for the seat of Clacton in south-east England, said he was leaving the Tories because Cameron was not serious about plans to reform the European Union ahead of an in/out referendum, due to be held in 2017 if the party wins an overall majority in next year’s General Election – it’s currently in a coalition with the center-left Liberal Democrats.
Carswell will now contest a special election for his seat – and if, as expected, he wins he will become UKIP’s first MP in Westminster. His defection is a triumph for UKIP and its leader Nigel Farage, and a major blow to Cameron, who had hoped to patch up splits in his party over Europe in the run-up to the 2015 election.
Announcing his defection, Carswell told a press conference: “The problem is that many of those at the top of the Conservative Party are simply not our side. They aren’t serious about the change that Britain so desperately needs.”
UKIP has pledged to take Britain out of the EU, a policy that increasing numbers of voters support. Cameron has pledged to negotiate with the EU to secure major reforms ahead of the 2017 referendum, but Carswell said he believed the party leadership was not being sincere. He said he had been told by senior advisers to the Prime Minister that voters would be offered “just enough to persuade enough of them to stay in”.
What is particularly damaging for Cameron is that Carswell is not some fringe figure or publicity-seeking opportunist whose defection the Conservatives can easily dismiss. He’s highly principled, and a serious thinker who’s been a leading voice for reform, both in his party and the UK political system in general.
The timing of Carswell’s announcement was particularly unfortunate for Prime Minister Cameron, coinciding as it did with the release of official figures showing net migration to Britain has risen to 250,000 in the past year, despite Cameron’s pledge to reduce the level to “tens of thousands.” The inability of Britain to control immigration from EU countries has been a hugely successful campaigning issue for UKIP.
Friday’s papers are filled with speculation about which other Tories might follow Carswell to UKIP, with claims that as many as eight MPs are in talks with Farage’s party. But while Farage might be celebrating, the real winner from Carswell’s defection may be the left-wing Labour party, which despite its current modest showing in the polls could win next year’s election if UKIP and the Tories split the center-right vote in enough ‘swing’ seats. The pro-Europe Labour party has refused to offer voters a referendum on the European Union, and for all his smiles today Farage must fear that the chances of Britain escaping the EU’s clutches any time soon just got a little slimmer.