In Depth

Ukip hopes of a Labour defector rise after ‘white van’ tweet

Cameron loses Rochester by-election after promising to win it – but does Miliband now have most to fear?

The Mole

Ukip, buoyant after their victory over the Tories in yesterday’s Rochester and Strood by-election, are now planning to target potential defectors among Labour MPs. That’s the message coming out of the Ukip camp – and their chances are doubtless improved by the disastrous “white van” tweet by shadow cabinet minister Emily Thornberry.

Labour leader Ed Miliband moved swiftly to demand Thornberry’s resignation. But as the BBC’s Norman Smith commented this morning, the tweet – a photo of a white van parked outside a home bedecked in St George’s flags, captioned ‘Image from Rochester’ – will be remembered in Labour circles long after their by-election result (third after Ukip and the Tories).

Douglas Carswell, the man who started the current ball rolling when he defected from the Tories to Ukip and then won the Clacton by-election, said on BBC’s Question Time last night that Ukip was hoping for a massive defection of voters from Labour to Ukip in the months leading up to the May 2015 general election. 

And Suzanne Evans, deputy chairman of Ukip, raised the ante when she suggested to the BBC’s Andrew Neil that her party is now hoping for a Labour MP to “cross the floor” to the Faragistes. “What the party would really like is a Labour defector - too many more Tory defectors and we will be stuck with the label of being the Tory Party.”

Thornberry’s horribly snobbish tweet – whether she meant it or not, that’s how it came across – could hardly have come at a worse time.

Fellow Labour MP Simon Danczuk said: “We all know what she was trying to imply. I think she was being derogatory and dismissive of the people. 

“I’ve talked about this previously. It’s like the Labour Party has been hijacked by the north London liberal elite [Thornberry was actually born on a housing estate, but is now reported to live in a £3.5m townhouse in Islington] and it’s comments like that which reinforce that view.” 

Miliband was furious because it implied that Labour was not listening to the core working-class voters he has been assiduous in courting. As a result, Thornberry was “surgically excised” in the words of the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson. 

As for the Tories, Michael Gove, the government chief whip, is apparently confident there won’t be any more immediate defections from the Conservative backbenches to Ukip following Carswell and Reckless, while Farage told Sky News there would not be any more defections “today or tomorrow”. 

According to Robinson, Cameron’s fear is that any future Tory turncoats will wait to defect until the moment of "maximum pain” - such as the day when Cameron makes his long-awaited speech on immigration.

We know that Farage is using expensive private polling conducted in individual Tory seats to soften up potential defectors by showing them they could “save their skins” by switching to Ukip in the weeks before the general.

And what of Cameron’s position? He clearly failed to deliver in Rochester after confidently telling Tory MPs he would get “Reckless's fat arse off the green benches of the House of Commons” and said he would “throw the kitchen sink” at winning the by-election.

But the defeat wasn’t as bad as it might have been. Reckless beat the Tory candidate by seven percentage points after Ukip had confidently predicted a winning margin of 15 points – and the Thornberry faux-pas has helped to take some of the heat off the PM. (Robinson compared the situation to Cameron driving at 100 mph towards a brick wall, only for Labour to throw themselves in front of the car before it crashed.)

It’s all grist to Nigel Farage’s mill, of course, though the Mole’s bullshit detector has gone off the scale this morning with the claims the Ukip leader has been making.

Farage is suggesting that because Rochester was 271st in its list of Tory target seats, anything could happen in the general election. But they won’t be fielding a well-known sitting MP in more than a handful of seats and the idea of a Ukip landslide is surely fanciful.

That said, the Ukip threat should now be of real concern to both main party leaders. While Cameron worries that a vote for Ukip next May will only serve to put Miliband in Downing Street, the Labour leader himself should be worrying about Ukip eating into his core blue-collar votes, just as Margaret Thatcher succeeded in doing in the 1970s.

Peter Kellner of YouGov told Radio 4 this morning that Ukip probably won’t pick up more than one seat from Labour in May - Grimsby being their best hope because of disgruntled fishermen who loathe the EU.

But Ukip could come second behind Labour in many northern seats, posing a real threat in the next general election. “If Ukip carry on, they could be a risk in dozens of seats in 2020,” Kellner predicted.

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