Tories hijack Reckless and Farage event in Rochester
It was meant to be Mark Reckless’s triumphant return. He came back to Rochester this morning accompanied by his new party leader Nigel Farage, to raise the Ukip standard in this historic Roman and medieval city.
Ukip planned this would be the start of their by-election campaign, another Clacton, hoping to terrify Conservatives around the country as they start their party conference in Birmingham.
Only local Tories – angry at what they see as Mark Reckless’s deception and treachery – fought back this morning. In numbers, and with great success.
The first sign of the Tory operation came on the high street when we bumped into Craig McKinlay, a local Conservative councillor who is fighting Nigel Farage in Thanet South at the next election. Mr McKinlay was briefly acting leader of Ukip some years ago, and deputy leader for many years, (before switching to the Tories), so knows a thing or two about defections. He was keen to tell us what a traitor Mr Reckless was.
Then a man in a bright pink T-shirt approached us and was keen to do an interview. He said he was called Philip Ruby, and was chairman, he said, of the Rochester Residents’ Association. Reckless had been a hopeless MP, he said, and done nothing to help residents tackle the problem of late-night drunkenness on Rochester High Street.
This, Mr Ruby suggested, was because of Reckless’s own problems with drink. When I pressed as to what he meant he referred to the time in 2010, when Mark Reckless missed a late-night Commons vote on the Finance Bill because, the MP said at the time, he was too drunk.
Ukip had asked the media to turn up at the Crown Inn at noon. When we got there just before midday we found Reckless talking to a man at the bar who said he was extremely upset with the MP (or former MP, to be accurate) for defecting.
He had admired his work as an MP, but told Reckless he was doing the wrong thing. Then a string of other people in the pub all said the same thing. The flow of opinion seemed to be too much in one direction to be true.
Outside a woman introduced herself as a Conservative activist. There were around 30 Tory colleagues in and around the pub she said, such was the strength of feeling in the local party about what Reckless had done. And she confirmed that the man in the pink T-shirt whom we’d spoken to was one of them.
It left journalists with a dilemma. Which of the several people we’d spoken to – voicing strong views against Reckless – were organised Conservatives, and which were genuine, random, local voters?
Unlike Clacton, I think Mark Reckless might struggle to win Rochester at the by-election expected in a few weeks’ time. He doesn’t seem to have the same personal vote as Douglas Carswell in Clacton.
Much will depend on what Labour does. Will they run a token campaign, as in Newark and Clacton, and let Ukip and the Tories slug it out? That, I suspect, will be the inclination of the very cautious party Labour has become under Ed Miliband.
But if Labour put up a proper fight – as they have done in Blair’s day – they could win Rochester. It was, after all, a Labour seat until 2010 (with Bob Marshall-Andrews as their MP).
But for Labour to win would rather underline the point Tories are making – that defections to Ukip merely help Ed Miliband and Labour.
Follow Michael Crick on Twitter: @MichaelLCrick