Douglas Carswell's defection signals that Nigel Farage is playing the long game for his party's future
Some political mysteries are solved by logic rather than leaks. The latest mystery: what is Nigel Farage really up to? If Douglas Carswell wins the coming by-election in Clacton, this could set off a chain of events that leads to Ed Milband becoming Prime Minister – and killing the chances of a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Farage’s tactics last week in seizing the news agenda were undoubtedly smart, but surely his strategy is idiotic?
Not necessarily. Farage knows what he is doing. He knows he is spouting nonsense when he claims that Ukip hurts Labour as much as the Tories. YouGov has consistently found that for every ex-Labour voter who switches to Ukip, there are three ex-Conservatives. This weekend’s poll for the Sunday Times confirms the pattern. Like a skilled magician, Farage is engaging in misdirection.
If Ukip, post-Clacton, gains in credibility and ends up with more votes nationally next May, then this could deprive the Tories of votes they badly need to fend off Labour. Suppose Ukip wins an extra 1,000 votes in Conservative marginals: 600 from the Tories and 200 each from Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Labour would win around ten more seats – enough, in a close contest, to become the largest party. That’s a modest estimate: the impact could be greater.
Let’s assume that Farage is behaving rationally. Logic suggests why he wants Labour to win. It is that his real ambition is to reshape Britain’s political Right. He wants the Tories to lose, tear themselves apart as the different wings blame each other for defeat, and then split over the best way forward. Farage would be waiting in the wings, offering to join forces with Conservative eurosceptics – so that, before long, he could take them over.
The point is not that the Conservative drama is bound to play out like this, but that Farage thinks it might. If that is his dream, it is a more attractive prospect than a Cameron victory, a referendum in 2017 and (as YouGov polls suggest) a likely vote to stay in the EU. Were that to happen, Farage and Ukip would be finished.
That’s the logic; but it is not just logic. Over the years I have discussed Ukip’s prospects with a number of the party’s leading lights. I have found a simmering tension between those whose main aim is an early vote on Europe, and those who are driven more by Ukip’s long-term prospects as a political force. Either Farage is stupid – and I don’t believe he is – or he sits firmly with those who would sacrifice a referendum for a shot at lasting glory.
This analysis was first published in the Sunday Times