In Depth

Cameron orders Tory blitz to stop Rochester going to Ukip

PM launches desperate bid to stop Ukip gaining further momentum – and to save his own skin

The Mole

David Cameron promised to “throw the kitchen sink” at winning the Rochester and Strood by-election – and last night he stood by his word, ordering Tory MPs to do everything possible to keep Ukip from taking the Kent seat with their “Tory turncoat” candidate Mark Reckless. 

Prime Ministers traditionally remain aloof from by-elections because of the snags they can cause. But Sky News reports that the Prime Minister will visit the seat no less than five times between now and the 20 November by-election, starting this week - before the Tory candidate has even been chosen.

The Prime Minister’s unprecedented personal commitment to stopping the march of Nigel Farage may have as much to do with saving his own skin as saving a once safe Tory seat.

But he’s not doing it all on his own. He has also ordered his 300 Tory MPs and ministers to visit the seat at least three times by polling day. 

He issued the edit at a meeting of the Parliamentary Conservative Party – described by Sky News as a “council of war – saying the Tories would have to campaign "very, very hard" to keep out Reckless, who had a majority of 9,953 when he stood as a Tory in in 2010.

But the Conservatives have still not chosen a candidate. In an extraordinary move, Cameron wrote this week to all voters in the constituency urging them to reject the Ukip “circus” and take part in an open primary for the selection of the Tory candidate from a shortlist of two Tory women councillors in Kent: Kelly Tolhurst, a marine surveyor and daughter of a boat builder; and Anna Firth, a former barrister whose brother works at Medway Marine Hospital.

This meets a challenge handed down by Douglas Carswell, who, appearing on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, called for the Tories to hold open primary selections and cast doubt on Cameron’s willingness to embrace such a radical change.

But in the state of siege the Tories find themselves in today, Cameron is open to change. 

He also dangled another pre-election “goodie” at voters by telling wealthier pensioners – core Tory voters - he wants to lift the burden of the “death tax” by raising the threshold from £325,000 to £650,000.

However, such a tax cut on top of others promised in his Tory party conference speech, leaves Cameron open to the charge of being profligate with unplanned, unaffordable tax cuts for the wealthy. Expect Labour leader Ed Miliband to zero in on these expensive promises today at the first session of Prime Minister’s Questions since MPs returned to the Commons after the conference season.

Indeed, the BBC’s Norman Smith was reporting early this morning that Downing Street was already seeking to pour cold water on the death tax “offer”, making it clear it was something Cameron hoped to implement one day, if and when.  

What is evident is that Cameron is determined to win Rochester and Strood at almost any price.

The Guardian is reporting today that Ukip could win as many as 30 seats next May, way up on Nigel Farage’s own most recent estimate of eight, if Ukip continues to gain momentum. And my colleague Don Brind has been crunching numbers for The Week and found 14 Tory seats where sitting MPs might be tempted to “cross the floor” this winter and sit as Ukip members. 

The big question now is how much blame will be attributed personally to David Cameron for this state of affairs. The Mail on Sunday quoted an anonymous Cabinet minister saying "if Reckless wins Rochester, there'll be 46 names” - a reference to the number of Tory MPs required to force a leadership contest.

At least Cameron hasn't lost his sense of humour.  After telling the Tory party conference “You could go to be with Nigel Farage and wake up with Ed Miliband," he reportedly told his MPs yesterday: "You start with a beer and you end up with a dull whine."

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