21 Nov 2014

What next for Nigel Farage and his growing Ukip gang?

A Ukip majority of 2,920 or 7.2 per cent.

Seven weeks ago, when Mark Reckless resigned his seat, Ukip would have been jubilant with such a result, and it would have been hugely damaging for David Cameron.

The extraordinary thing now is that a Ukip margin of under 3,000 – less than a quarter of their majority in Clacton – is being seen by Conservatives as something of a success.

Yet in some ways this was a far worse result for the Conservatives.

Clacton, on the Essex coast, was considered a prime Ukip target, whereas Rochester and Strood is a more mainstream seat. Nor did Mark Reckless enjoy anything like the same personal following as Douglas Carswell in Clacton.

More important still, the Conservatives took Rochester very seriously, whereas Clacton was only ever a half-hearted campaign. Every Cabinet minister was expected to visit five times, though whether such visits ever gain a single extra vote, I rather doubt.

And David Cameron came five times too. Indeed, after his four visits to the Newark by-election (and I forget the figure in Clacton), he has probably done more by-election visits than all prime ministers in the last 100 years combined.

The Conservatives famously promised to “throw the kitchen sink” at the seat, and today, in celebration of their victory, Ukip plan to present local Tories with a kitchen sink – an old porcelain one, I presume, not a modern stainless steel type of sink.

Getting it back?

The Tories spent huge amounts of money in Rochester, arguably way in excess of the spending limit in such contests, including a vast sum on a primary contest to allow local voters to pick between two possible candidates.

And, in a moment of desperation, David Cameron even begged Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters to lend their votes to the Conservatives, as tactical votes to try and keep Ukip out. (That, incidentally, would have devalued any Conservative win in any case.)

By any measure, this was a very bad result for David Cameron, though the party entertains high hopes of winning the seat back next May. And Mark Reckless must be worried about keeping his job.

Labour’s vote almost halved, from 28.5 per cent in 2010, to just 16.7 per cent – another dreadful result only five months before people start voting in the general election.


Labour people argue they were never in with a serious chance in Rochester, and that they seat is a significantly different area from the constituency held by Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews between 1997 and 2010, when the boundaries were changed.

Up to a point. The changes in the boundaries were fairly minor.

And consider this fact. When Gordon Brown, as prime minister, called the last general election in April 2010, his first act after seeing the Queen at Buckingham Palace was to catch a train from St Pancras down to Rochester, and from the station he went to a campaign stop at Morrison’s supermarket in Strood. 

Clearly Labour thought that Rochester and Strood was winnable in 2010. And many in the party were unhappy at the high command’s refusal to treat the contest more seriously.

Lib Dems lose deposit

As for the Liberal Democrats, I sometimes wonder why they keep fighting by-elections.

They got a humiliating 0.87 per cent of the vote, about a fifth of the figure polled by the Greens. It’s by far the worst of a string of increasingly terrible results for the party over the course of this parliament.

The 1.37 per cent they got in Clacton is thought to be the lowest figure any of the main parties has ever got in a Westminster election, and Rochester was far worse than that.

Pity their poor candidate, Geoff Juby. His vote dropped from the 16.3 per cent he got at the 2010 election, a fall of almost 95 per cent. If any candidate has ever seen their vote fall so dramatically between elections, I’d love to hear about it.

It’s an extraordinary turn-around for the Lib Dems. From the early 1970s to about five years ago they were the masters of by-elections, regularly pulling off shock results.


But now, of course, Ukip are the protest party.

And the Greens. Their 4.2 per cent was their best result since the 2010 general election. The party’s slow improvement in the national polls in the last few months – to the point where they regularly poll between 4 per cent and 6 per cent – is one of the big under-reported stories right now.

The Greens’ big problem is poor organisation and the fact they may not have the people or money to fight every seat in 2015.

Will any more Conservative MPs defect to Ukip? Mark Reckless has said he expects two more defections, and Nigel Farage hinted last night that a “local” MP may join his party, though he might merely have been teasing us.

I suspect the fact that Mark Reckless’s majority was rather smaller than many predicted may make some potential defectors think twice.

All three of the main parties had appalling results here. David Cameron and Ed Miliband faced possible crisis. In both cases the result was probably enough to keep their critics quiet.

This could go down in history as a by-election of great drama and expectations, but in the end, very few consequences.

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