Cameron suffers blow as MP defects to UKIP
LONDON — British Prime Minister David Cameron suffered a setback yesterday when one of his Conservative lawmakers unexpectedly defected to the anti-EU UK Independence Party, saying he doubted Cameron’s desire to reform the European Union.
The defection of Douglas Carswell comes eight months before a national election in which UKIP is threatening Cameron’s re-election chances. UKIP, which wants Britain to leave the EU, won May’s European elections in Britain after taking votes from the Conservatives.
Carswell, 43, said he was standing down as a Conservative member of parliament with immediate effect because he had lost faith in Cameron’s promises to try to renegotiate Britain’s EU ties if he wins power again next year.
Cameron has said he would hold a referendum in 2017 on whether to stay in or get out of the EU after the renegotiation, if it happens.
“David Cameron has made up his mind. He wants to stay in,” Carswell told a news conference. “It’s all about positioning for the election. If I believed they were sincere about real change I wouldn’t be here. I don’t believe that they’re serious.”
Though a blow, Conservative strategists regard any fallout from the defection of Carswell, a politician whose colleagues have long regarded him as a maverick, as manageable. But other, similar defections could begin to pose a serious problem.
UKIP wants an immediate British EU withdrawal and an end to what it calls an “open door” immigration policy. It has no seats in the British parliament but holds 24 of the country’s 73 seats in the European Parliament.
Cameron said Carswell’s defection was unfortunate, stressing his was the only party able to deliver an EU membership vote.
“I think it’s deeply regrettable, counter-productive and self-defeating,” Cameron told BBC TV.
Carswell’s announcement threatens to unsettle the Eurosceptic wing of Cameron’s party, estimated to account for around a third of his 304 members of parliament, before next year’s national election and could prompt other defections.
Tim Bale, a professor at London’s Queen Mary University and author of a history on the Conservative party, said there was a risk Carswell’s decision could ignite “a kind of bubbling semi civil war” between now and the next election.
“That will give voters the idea that this isn’t a party that is interested in them and that it is more interested in arguing about Europe — it is divided,” Bale said in a phone interview.
Internal Conservative party ructions over Europe contributed to the political undoing of the last two Conservative prime ministers, John Major and Margaret Thatcher.
Michael Dugher, a lawmaker from the opposition Labour party, which is ahead in opinion polls before next year’s national election, said Carswell’s defection was “a hammer blow” to Cameron.
“Confidence in David Cameron is collapsing inside a Conservative party which is divided and running scared of UKIP,” Dugher said in a statement.
Nigel Farage, UKIP’s leader, said he hoped Carswell’s decision, which he praised as “noble,” would embolden other members of parliament to switch sides.
“I don’t think it’s any great secret that there are now a number of members of parliament sitting on the Conservative benches, and indeed now some sitting on the Labour benches, who hold UKIP’s views very strongly,” he said. “It will be an encouragement to others.”
Bale said enough further defections could undermine Cameron’s chances in next year’s election, given how close it is expected to be.
“It is a big deal if lots of people begin to jump ship, because it will begin to look like it is a sinking ship,” he said.
A YouGov poll on Thursday put Conservative support at 34 percent, just behind Labour’s 35 percent. UKIP was on 14 percent.
The defection gives Cameron, who is due to appear in Scotland later on Thursday, a short-term political problem.
His party now faces an election battle in the coming months for Carswell’s parliamentary seat in Clacton, in southern England. Matthew Goodwin, an academic at the University of Nottingham, said UKIP was likely to win that vote.
“The demographics in Clacton are ideal for UKIP,” he told BBC radio.
Carswell, who comfortably took the seat in 2010 with a majority of more than 12,000 votes, said he would try to win it again, this time to represent UKIP.
Herald with Reuters