Yesterday’s by-election was more or less a foregone conclusion, with the Tories’ original promise to ‘throw the kitchen sink’ at Rochester & Strood, having been ashes in the mouth of the Prime Minister for at least a week.
So, Mark Reckless – UKIP’s candidate – retakes the seat he held as a Conservative MP from 2010, and no-one in the country with so much the suggestion of a finger on the fluttering political pulse of the nation should be at all surprised.
That doesn’t mean the win is insignificant, however, not by any means. There have been noises for a few days now about a UKIP win triggering at least two more defections from Tory MPs. There are about as many Tories who could defect, as there are Tory backbenchers, but two front-runners are the arch-Eurosceptic Peter Bone, who has called for UKIP and the Tories to work together in the past, and John Baron, who when questioned about whether he would defect replied with the deliciously clichéd ‘never say never’.
With the General Election approaching fast, it is more and more unlikely that the new tradition of forcing a by-election if you decide to jump ship to Farage’s mob would hold. Any future defections could well be automatic, potentially swelling the ranks of UKIP substantially in the run-up to May 2015. However, whilst Farage will be keen to pinch as many Tories as he can to get his made-in-the-UK purple mittens on, what he is really after now is a Labour defector. This would fit in with his growing narrative about UKIP being a party of neither the left nor the right – and, considering polling shows their appeal among former Conservative voters is approaching its critical mass. It is looking increasingly necessary if UKIP want to keep up their admittedly impressive momentum.
What about Rochester & Strood itself? Well, with a much-reduced majority of 7.3% on a low turnout of just 50%, Reckless is far from secure. Lord Ashcroft’s polling shows that the Tories are likely to reclaim the seat in 2015 when, as Grant Schapps put it this morning: ‘the future of the country will be on the ballot paper’. Lib Dem, Labour and even Green supporters might be willing to lend their votes to the Tories to keep out a UKIP MP for a full parliament where they were not willing to do so for the sake of five months. We shall see.
Speaking of the other parties, it did not go too well for them either. The swing against Labour was -12%, nearly as much as against the Tories, while the Lib Dems got just 1% and lost their deposit again. The Green Party, meanwhile, continued their recent trend of thrashing the Lib Dems into fourth place with 4% at the expense of some of the Labour vote. Sixth place went to a dominatrix who was last year voted Britain’s favourite sex worker. She got just 300 votes less than the Lib Dem candidate.
UKIP continue their march, while the Tory and Labour high commands will be quaking in their respective boots at the prospect of further defections. The Greens are still doing quite well and the Lib Dems look like the next general election may well see them wiped off the face of the Earth.