14 Oct 2014

Cameron sets high stakes for the Rochester by-election

The Tories have decided to deploy one of Douglas Carswell’s pet political projects –¬†the open primary, in which all constituents get a chance to pick a candidate – against his best mate and fellow defector Mark Reckless.

In a hastily put-together plan to try to steal the “local” mantle and the “serious” one too, David Cameron is writing to all voters in the constituency asking them to choose between¬†two Tory councillors to fight the seat next month.

It’s so hastily put together that neither of the potential candidates is free to chat to today. They are, Tory spokespeople say, working on their addresses to the voters. I suspect they are being schooled in media training too, given the high-stakes nature of this contest.

The letter from the PM to local voters warns them off parties who promote “stunts”. But the Tories’ own open primary was in danger of being portrayed as just that as the party pondered whether to ask Olympic oarsman James Cracknell to fight the seat.

United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage (R) reacts during a photocall with former Conservative MP and UKIP candidate Mark Reckless outside the party campaign office in Rochester southeast England

Wiser heads may have prevailed on that. The party’s offering two local figures to the constituency to choose from. But someone failed to clock that Ukip’s MP for Clacton, no slouch on procedures, might try to fire the starting gun for his friend’s by-election earlier than the Tories might like. So today we had the writ moved for a by-election well before the Tories have chosen their candidate.

Cross the bridge from picturesque Rochester into Strood and Hoo, and you find where a lot of Ukip’s vote might come from. A Tory from the constituency calls this “C2 land”. Voters here had received the David Cameron letter, pre-paid envelope enclosed, for the constituency-wide primary. Several told me it had gone straight in the bin.

Around here, Ukip support is easy to find. This by-election may come down to whether the Labour vote here collapses into Ukip’s, pushing Mark Reckless over the line. David Cameron himself has helped to set the stakes extraordinarily high.

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