I’ve remarked before on the irony of the way in which Britain’s integration into Europe has produced a rather typical northern European far-right party: nationalist and anti-immigrant but not otherwise very conservative, and indeed maintaining a self-image of libertarianism despite its obvious appeal to authoritarian sentiment.
Such is the UK Independence Party, or UKIP, which yesterday doubled its representation in the House of Commons by winning a second previously Conservative seat at a by-election, this time in Rochester & Strood, in Kent.
Like UKIP’s first MP, Douglas Carswell, Rochester & Strood’s Mark Reckless was originally elected as a Conservative. Having switched sides, he then resigned his seat to demonstrate the extent of local support. And it worked, with a fairly comfortable victory by almost 3,000 votes, 42.1% to the Conservative’s 34.8%.
That’s not as big as the victory Carswell won last month in nearby Clacton, where he scored 59.7% and more than doubled the Tory vote. But Clacton was always going to be especially good UKIP territory – the BBC reports that it is 97.4% white with the country’s second-highest proportion of older residents – whereas Rochester & Strood is much more typical of England as a whole. If UKIP can win there it can threaten a swathe of seats right across the south-east.
Of course, a by-election is very different from a general election. The Conservatives say they are confident of winning Rochester & Strood back next year, and most analysts still think UKIP will only win a handful of seats. Its real influence so far is in the way it seems to be dragging David Cameron’s government further and further to the right, especially on immigration issues.
Opinion is divided on whether there will be more defectors to UKIP before next May. Last month, veteran pro-European Tory Ken Clarke said there were others “who I’ve always thought … should obviously be in UKIP rather than our party.” But the chief Conservative whip, Michael Gove, claimed that he was “absolutely 100%” sure that no more MPs would leave.
For Cameron, there’s no good answer. Clearly elements of his backbench are philosophically closer to UKIP than to him: if they leave like Carswell and Reckless they will give it more ammunition, but if they stay they act as a fifth column determined to put the Tories into the vanguard of the anti-European movement.
If the Conservatives are returned next year, Cameron will face an impossible dilemma. His continental partners – particularly Germany’s Angela Merkel – have made it clear that there is only so far they will go to keep Britain in the EU, and that free movement of people is not negotiable. Maybe some compromise can be worked out, but it’s hard to imagine it happening by 2017, when Cameron has promised a referendum on continued membership.
At that point, Cameron has to either back down or, unimaginably, push for a British exit. But by pandering to them now, Cameron is hardly helping his chance of being able to successfully face down the Europhobes in two or three years time. As Rafael Behr put it last month in the Guardian:
Every notch along the track is accompanied by mumbles of frustration from Tories who want to stay in Europe, or want to keep the option open, or just recognise that their leader is diminished by the ritual of begging for mercy from people who want to control and then destroy him.
But it’s not just Cameron who’ll be worrying about the implications of Rochester & Strood. UKIP votes don’t only come from the Conservatives: Labor’s vote was also well down, to 16.8%, and the Liberal Democrats crashed from 16.3% to 0.9%, in fifth place behind the Greens and only half a point ahead of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party.
Yes, it’s only a by-election, and first-past-the-post voting can always produce rapid turnarounds. But with less than six months till Britain goes to the polls, it really looks as if its party system is in for a big shake-up.