In Depth

Rochester and booed: Ukip's Reckless a one-hit wonder?

Tories could regain seat at general election – and there’s a limit to public anxiety about immigration

Columnist Don Brind

With four days to go to the Rochester and Strood by-election, the Tories and Ukip are playing hard at the expectations game, preparing the ground for the spin they will put on the results.

Ukip are talking up their chances, backed by recent opinion polls in the constituency which point to Mark Reckless beating the Tories’ Kelly Tolhurst by a margin of between 12 and 15 points. An Ashcroft poll puts Ukip on 44, ahead of the Tories on 32. (Lab 17, Lib Dems 2, Greens 4). Survation has Ukip on 48 and the Conservatives on 33. (Lab 16, Lib Dems 1, Greens 2).

The Faragistes believe the election of a second MP heralds a fundamental change in the British political landscape and are making come-hither signs to other potential Conservative defectors. 

Six Tory backbenchers are ready to jump, according to the Express, which is the closest thing Ukip have to a house newspaper (its former political editor, Patrick O’Flynn, is now the party’s director of communications and an MEP). “Insiders” claim that John Baron, MP for Basildon and Billericay, is the most likely to cross the floor.

Bookmakers Paddy Power agree that Baron is a possible defector but put Philip Hollobone, Tory MP for Kettering, ahead of him as favourite to go first. Others deemed likely by the bookies to defect are Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) and George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth).

Mark Reckless told the Express: “I don’t know whether it is an earthquake or a tsunami, but we are seeing the potential realignment of our political system.” The political landscape could be transformed, he said, as it was in the 1920s when Labour replaced the Liberals as main challengers to the Tories.

Meanwhile the Conservatives are using a finding of Lord Ashcroft’s to persuade themselves – and any further defectors – that a win for Reckless on Thursday could turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory for Ukip. 

As I mentioned here on Thursday, Ashcroft discovered that when voters in Rochester and Strood were asked who they would support in the May 2015 general election, 36 per cent said Tory and only 35 per cent said Ukip. In short, Reckless could win this week and be out of a job in May.

What Tory backbencher would be mad enough to cross the floor to Ukip if there’s a strong chance they will lose their seat for good at the general election?

The Tory leadership – and, indeed, anyone who dislikes Ukip - will be further encouraged by the results of a three-year investigation into public attitudes which finds that the British public “is moderate, not mad” when it comes to immigration.

Andrew Rawnsley of The Observer has seen an advance copy of the report by the think-tank British Future. “The good news,” he writes, “is that public attitudes are not as simplistically hostile as is often assumed. Xenophobes who think most voters share their toxic views and liberals who fear that to be the case are both wrong. 

“The majority of voters have a much more complex set of attitudes that are not being reflected by the party political slugfest.”  

The British Future investigation concludes: “Most people aren’t desperate to pull up the drawbridge and stop all immigration, nor are they crying out for more of it. Instead they’re somewhere in the middle: worried about the impacts on jobs, public services and on the ‘Britishness’ of our culture; but aware of the benefits to our economy.”

A key finding relevant to Ukip’s prospects is that 25 per cent of the electorate at most belong to what might be called the ‘slam the door’ brigade. “Nigel Farage likes to claim that he speaks for ‘the silent majority’,” writes Rawnsley. “He is actually the megaphone of a noisy minority.”

Rawnsley adds that British Future’s finding “chimes with the private belief of some Ukip insiders that 25 per cent is the absolute ceiling on their potential national support at a general election”.

Which is why Nigel Farage has been trying to broaden Ukip’s appeal, making the NHS a major campaign theme in Rochester and Strood.

This was undermined last week when The Guardian unearthed a 2012 clip of Farage telling Ukippers that the state-funded NHS should move towards an insurance-based system run by private companies.

The Ukip leader insists that he and his party have changed their policy since then and now advocate keeping the health service free at the point of use. But the Farage flip-flop has brought scathing attacks from Labour leader Ed Miliband and shadow health secretary Andy Burnham.

“Why should anyone believe this is anything but an opportunistic attempt to cover up your and your party’s longstanding conviction that the NHS should be privatised?” asked Burnham in an open letter to Farage posted on the LabourList website. 

Raising comments made down the years by Farage and his colleagues, Burnham concludes: “It is clear you have long believed [in] cutting the NHS even further, increasing privatisation and charging patients for vital health services.”

As for the Tories, David Cameron is expected to head straight for Kent on his return from Australia. It will be his fifth visit to the constituency and he is likely to pick up on what he told reporters in Canberra - that a win on Thursday for Mark Reckless “won’t be about the people of Rochester and Strood, it will be about Ukip. 

“It’ll be about another sort of notch for them. They will all celebrate with a pint in the pub and there will be a greater danger of insecurity and instability in our economy.”

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