Following UKIP’s crushing defeat in the Stoke by-election in February, it should have become clear to all that UKIP and Brexit are not synonymous. Stoke is one of the most pro-Brexit parts of the country, and yet it rejected the party that likes to claim responsibility for Brexit.
Douglas Carswell, MP for Clacton-on-Sea, gets this. Despite defecting from the Tories to UKIP in 2014, he understood that while many Britons were not keen on being ruled by bureaucrats in Brussels, they also didn’t want UKIP’s Dad’s Army to be in charge. Now, in his new book Rebel, he tells the story of his defection to UKIP and his decision later to leave UKIP to become an independent MP. (He has since announced that he will not stand in the upcoming General Election.)
Carswell entered parliament in 2005 as a Tory MP. He had high hopes for then party leader David Cameron, believing he would take seriously Britons’ dissatisfaction with the EU. He tells how, during the Lib-Con coalition years, he and Daniel Hannan, Tory MEP and longstanding critic of the EU, would covertly meet in the Tate Britain to discuss how to push forward their hope for a referendum on EU membership. But Cameron’s lack of interest in the EU problem soon became apparent – ‘special advisers smirked each time we tried to make our case’.
During this time, he noticed something very striking about the polling data: the more prominent Farage and UKIP became, the less general support there was for leaving the EU. ‘The numbers were clear’, he writes. ‘Disapproval of Britain’s EU membership, once running at 60 per cent, fell to below 50 per cent as UKIP’s polling took off.’ Yes, some voters opted for UKIP as a means of expressing their anti-EU beliefs, but for others UKIP was a turn-off. Carswell figured that so-called swing voters would be less likely to vote to leave the EU if Farage was seen as the man fronting the campaign to get out.
Cameron and the government, Carswell suspected, knew this. And it would be on this basis that they might at some point fight a referendum on the EU. They believed there would be ‘the Cameronian Remainers on the one hand, and the Faragists on the other’. Carswell says ‘it was crystal clear to us that if the referendum became a Cameron v Farage contest’, then the Eurosceptics would lose. People would be turned off by Faragism. With this in mind, he defected to UKIP in order to ‘take control of Euroscepticism’, and refocus it away from Farage, UKIP and its anti-immigration politics. So he joined UKIP to stop UKIP from being a problem