3 Sep 2014

Ukip’s Douglas Carswell ‘showered with supportive texts’ from Tories

Half a century ago, the seaside peace of Clacton in Essex was shattered by a vicious clash between rival gangs of mods and rockers. Fifty years on, the political mod Douglas Carswell has prompted a battle for the heart and soul of the Conservative party by joining Ukip.

His defection threatens to lay bare bitter divisions over Europe which have simmered since Margaret Thatcher’s day. Conservative ministers fear other MPs will join him, but when I went to talk to him in sunny Clacton earlier, for his first broadcast interview since his resignation, he refused to put a number on fellow defectors.

But in an admission that may worry Tory whips, he says he’s been showered with supportive texts and emails from Conservative MPs, and many of his local Tory association staff have joined him in defecting to Ukip already.

Yet his resignation has made it more difficult for him to achieve what has for long been his number one goal: an in/out referendum on Britain’s EU membership. Because every Tory voter who switches to Ukip makes a Labour victory more likely and Ed Miliband doesn’t want a referendum.

That was an argument Carswell himself made until very recently. And he has a tough job justifying the volte face. He seems to think that David Cameron is so intent on staying in the EU he will get just enough changes to Britain’s relationship to hoodwink the electorate into backing an “in” vote at the 2017 referendum. But those changes won’t, in Carswell’s view, be enough to make a real difference.

It seems odd to me that a man who has spent his entire political career arguing for democratic change now appears to distrust the outcome of a referendum which would give the people their say on Europe.

Odd, too, that some in the party he’s joined espouse views on women and immigration he claims to abhor. So where a former Ukip MEP called women “sluts” and was allowed to remain in the party for months afterwards, Carswell says he finds such a view “totally intolerable”. And while the Ukip leader Nigel Farage said women who took maternity leave were “worth less” to employers, his newest recruit says he’s a wholehearted supporter of generous maternity conditions.

Then there’s immigration. Carswell shares Ukip’s desire for controlled immigration, but what party doesn’t? I asked him what he thought about Farage’s concerns about Romanians moving in next door, and Carswell waxes lyrical about a “remarkable Romanian” doctor in his constituency. His vision of “modern Britain” – a vision he says is exemplified by Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis taking part in the London Olympics – is rather different from that sketched out by his leader, who frets that a country made “unrecognisable” by mass immigration is not a country he wants to bequeath to his children and grandchildren.

Perhaps the truth is that Carswell is something of a political one-off: he didn’t quite fit with the Tories but will he get along with Ukip any better?

He is, he admits, not afraid to be something of a loner. If no other Conservative MPs join him in making a home with Ukip, he insists he won’t mind. “I wouldn’t feel lonely if people in Clacton were with me,” he says.

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