Farage and Loathing in Westminster: The Carswell Conundrum

Barney Trimble: 

One of the things that became quite noticeable following the twin defections of Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell to UKIP in late 2014 was how comfortable they were with each other and with Nigel Farage. On the one hand, Reckless was rarely seen without Farage by his side; on the other, Carswell was, after the initial publicity and hype, more often on his own. The two were very rarely seen together. Despite their contrasting fortunes last May, Reckless’ political future looks more secure than Carswell. Since the election, Carswell has appeared ill at ease in his new political home, while Reckless has thrown himself deep into the UKIP machine and is currently attempting to spearhead the campaign in Wales.

Twelve months ago, my housemate stormed up the stairs to my attic room with his latest betting tip: UKIP to win over ten seats at 13/1. While originally sceptical, I began to think that he had snaffled a rather solid bet. The by-elections of Carswell and Reckless had been secured comfortably and the polls continued to suggest that it was possible. Would there be a shy UKIP factor, I pondered? Could there even be some late defections? Of course, when the results started to roll in, the 13/1 odds justified themselves. The self-declared “people’s army” were scattered and unable to group in sufficient numbers. There were hundreds of narrowly lost skirmishes, but Field Marshall Farage had failed to secure his beachhead, Colonel Reckless had lost his castle and only one constituency, led by Colonel Carswell, was able to wave the UKIP banner above its parapets. But this even this stronghold looks precarious.

Douglas Carswell is one of the nation’s most independently-minded MPs, was a rising star in the Tory Party and has been described by The Economist as “the thinking man’s Kipper”. However, it was recently noticed that the sign on Carswell’s constituency in Clacton has no mention of UKIP. Under normal circumstances, an MP not displaying their party on their constituency building would not be worth a moment’s thought, but Carswell and UKIP do not fall under normal circumstances. This is merely the latest bump in their relationship which has ranged from Farage’s failure to resign to Carswell’s rejection of parliamentary funds. The split between the key figures in the party has been consistently evident.

Fundamentally, this comes from a difference in personalities and ideals. Son of the man who would be the inspiration behind The Last King of Scotland, Carswell’s libertarian ideals are largely shaped by the atrocities he witnessed under Idi Amin’s rule. Author of half a dozen books on the subject, he is a strong believer in a small-state and his euroscepticism derives from his desire to see Britain expand into the world as well as an ingrained disdain towards bureaucracy. Meanwhile, Farage’s views seem to have shifted. Having previously promoted UKIP as a libertarian party, the last election saw UKIP become a populist party with allegiance to neither left nor right that fitted with his “bloke in the pub” image. It is also of note that his desire to leave the EU appears to be much more focused on reclaiming British sovereignty and restricted immigration.

Differences in opinion are part and parcel of any political party. They naturally come to the fore when the future direction is uncertain and overcoming them is what allows a party to be successful. So what must happen and who must win for everyone to move forward?

The idea of a Carswell-led UKIP is intriguing, but the man himself has consistently recommended others to take over the reins and repeatedly ruled himself out of the running. This is not to suggest that there will be no leadership change. Since the general election, Farage’s position has been under debate, although a summer purging of some influential opponents from key positions appeared to quell the conspirators thirst for change for now. Besides, for all the pernickety internal politics, the vast majority of UKIP’s base is in favour of Farage. Despite his 17 year tenancy as MEP for South-East England, he is still seen as being outside of the establishment and also has a national recognition bettered by few politicians outside Downing Street.

Thus, we come to the Carswell Conundrum. It increasingly feels that the party is not big enough for both Carswell and Farage. The party can ill afford to be absorbed by internal squabbling in the run-up to the EU referendum and will need one side to back down. Unfortunately for Carswell, he is more expendable than Farage. So, what next? Realistically, the situation will resolve itself in one of three ways:

  1. He stays with UKIP. This would rely on Carswell backing down and submitting to Farage’s authority, at least until a new leader takes over. This is highly unlikely due to his historically principled approach. This is a man who called a by-election when he wasn’t required to, regularly went against the Tory whip and turned down money the party was entitled due to it being more than his office required. Theoretically it could work, but this is in much the same way that the moderate wing of Labour can stay working under Corbyn. Of course, a change in the polls and at the polling stations would likely smooth over the infighting temporarily, but, if the Oldham West by-election result is anything to go by, this appears to be unlikely in the foreseeable future.
  2. He could become an independent. This is even less likely than staying with UKIP as he acts largely as an independent MP at the moment anyway. In becoming independent, he would be inviting more competition for his seat as well as depriving himself of party funds and resources.
  3. He rejoins the Tories. This is the most delicate proposition. It is extremely unlikely that David Cameron would take him back. The Prime Minister took the defections of Carswell and Reckless hard, valuing the defeat of Reckless more than that of Ed Balls. His personal disdain for Carswell was exemplified by his noticeably curt dismissal of his question at a recent PMQs (while the PM is well known for evading questions on Wednesday afternoons, this was a particularly spectacular example). A potential readmission into the party would rely on who takes over from Cameron. A Eurosceptic leader would give Carswell an excuse and likely be quite welcoming, while an opportunistic leader (I’m looking at you Gideon) would realise the political value that recapturing the rebel would be worth. On the other hand, anyone who felt residual loyalty to Cameron would likely shoot down any suggestion of the move.

If there’s one thing that an adolescence of watching films rather than studying has taught me, it is that defectors are rarely trusted. Carswell faces a great deal of mistrust from the UKIP base and it’s hard to imagine that Tory MPs would get over his betrayal particularly quickly were he to return. It could well be that he finds himself rejected by both sides and ending up cast adrift in the political wilderness. This leads to the fourth option for Douglas: stepping down. If he feels that he is out of political allies, this may well prove to be the only course of action left. Clacton and the country would be all the poorer.

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