If you are going to make a political statement, timing is everything.
As the UKIP Conference came to a close in Doncaster and the doors opened to the Conservatives in Birmingham, Mark Reckless a hitherto fairly obscure backbencher, chose the moment to defect.
Given his close ties to Douglas Carswell, the first and most prominent defector from the Conservatives, and allegiance to Eurosceptic MEP Daniel Hannan is decision is perhaps no surprise. Reckless has been a constant rebel, disobeying the Conservative whip on numerous occasions with, according to Brian Wheeler’s political epitaph to Reckless , no real cause.
For Reckless the move is likely to be a pyrrhic gesture. If re-elected in the inevitable by-election, he and Carswell (if re-elected) might be a thorn in the side to Conservatives. But they will struggle to be heard. The 2015 might return some UKIP MPs to Westminster but research suggests that voters focus on national issues, in particular the economy, at national contests whereas European or local elections they are more willing to vote on a single issue or split their ticket. Hence it is an uphill struggle for UKIP to make a serious impact in Westminster.
However the defection of Carswell and Reckless is not without significance. While Boris Johnson in his inimitable style described defections as utterly nuts, it belays a concern that must resound around Conservative members who dream of a second term for Cameron. The burning question is how many traditional Conservative voters sympathise with the defectors, and how many increasingly see UKIP as the party they should support in order to at least force the issue of an in/out referendum on the UKs membership of the EU.
The benefits freeze may well solidify Labour’s vote, despite Ed Miliband forgetting the economy during his conference speech. Labour’s lead is a tenuous 2% (35 to the Conservatives’ 33, UKIP trail on 9%) but the most recent survey was on September 14th. Post conference is the key to understanding how the parties stand after they showcase their manifesto promises for the first time. This may be a win-lose situation for the Conservatives, and to be overshadowed for even a second by the thorny question of ‘Europe’ plays into their opponents’ hands.
The forthcoming by-elections in Rochester and Strood and Clacton will bring the Europe question again to the fore. They could expose deep divisions within Conservative ranks as their candidates struggle to articulate a clear defence against their former colleagues’ doubts regarding Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum. Thus for both the defectors and for their former party their moves may prove extremely ‘reckless’ (pun intended) and damaging.
With Nigel Farage’s ability to earn free media, with public opinion uncertain on the Europe question, and with a coalition split and a Conservative party wavering on when to hold a referendum and what the timing and criteria for this might be, there is a lot to play for over the next eight months. The election, and the future of the UK, hangs in the balance, and Mark Reckless may well have played a key role in undermining the chances of a Conservative second term.
Written by Dr Darren Lilleker, Bournemouth University's Media School