British Prime Minister David Cameron suffered a blow from within his own ranks as a lawmaker from his Conservative Party announced that he’s defected to the U.K. Independence Party, forcing a special election.
Douglas Carswell, who represents Clacton in Essex, to the east of London, told a news conference in the capital today with UKIP leader Nigel Farage that his decision was sparked by the fact that “many at the top of the Conservative Party simply aren’t on our side.” He will now seek the approval of voters in his district to become UKIP’s first elected member of the House of Commons.
“Principle in politics is more important than the career of an official MP, even when that MP happens to be me,” Carswell said. “This hasn’t been an easy decision.”
Carswell’s move, just over eight months before the next general election, will reignite concerns in the Tory party that Cameron is losing core supporters to UKIP. Farage’s party, which placed first in European Parliament elections in May, has lured traditional Conservatives by campaigning for higher curbs on immigration and for Britain to leave the European Union.
“It’s obviously deeply regrettable when things happen like this, when people behave in this way, but it’s also in my view counterproductive,” Cameron told BBC Television. “If you want a referendum on Britain’s future in the EU, whether we stay or go, the only way to get that is to get a Conservative government after the next election.”
The Conservatives have no chance of ousting Carswell in the special election, for which no date has yet been set, according to Matthew Goodwin, author of “Revolt on the Right,” a study of UKIP.
Clacton “is the No. 1 seat for UKIP; it has the largest concentration of UKIP-friendly voters in the country,” Goodwin, who was present at the announcement, said in an interview. “Carswell was going to have a reduced majority” against a UKIP candidate in the 2015 election. “Now he cannot lose.”
Carswell is 1/3 favorite to win the by-election, according to bookmaker Paddy Power Plc. That means a successful 3-pound bet would win 1 pound plus the return of the stake.
Farage, who’s running for UKIP in 2015 in Thanet South in Kent, another southeastern seaside town with higher than average unemployment, described Carswell’s decision as “the bravest, most honorable, noblest thing I’ve seen in British politics in my lifetime.”
One prominent euroskeptic Tory lawmaker, John Redwood, expressed surprise at the timing of Carswell’s announcement.
“It seems a bit bizarre, because we seem to be winning,” he said in an interview.
“The prime minister is moving our way -- he’s about to announce we have to leave this thing,” Redwood said in a reference to the EU. “Why would you leave when you’re winning?”
Cameron has pledged a referendum on EU membership if re-elected in 2015, and the premier found himself increasingly at odds with fellow EU leaders earlier this year over his opposition to the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission president.
The opposition Labour Party called the defection a “hammer blow” for Cameron.
“David Cameron’s weak leadership has seen him abandon the center ground, repeatedly trying to pander to his own right-wing backbenchers rather than concentrate on the needs of the country,” one of its spokesmen in the Commons, Michael Dugher, said in an e-mailed statement. “Now even his own side are abandoning him.”
UKIP previously gained a member of the Commons in 2008 when another Tory lawmaker from Essex, Bob Spink, also defected. He lost his seat in 2010. Farage’s party has three members in the unelected upper House of Lords.
“Let’s see if we can make history,” Carswell said.