The Clacton by-election is over a month away, but titbits of news and gossip are keeping the story in the headlines (much to Ukip’s delight, I suspect).
So far this week we’ve had Lord Ashcroft’s opinion poll, which suggested Ukip is 32 points ahead of the Conservatives (and the Liberal Democrats on a next-to-nothing 2%); a rumour that the Conservative candidate will be chosen through an open primary, perhaps done to spite Douglas Carswell who cited the Tories’ disdain for such a process as one of the reasons he defected; and another rumour that the original Ukip candidate for Clacton, Roger Lord, has quit as local councillor and is transferring his support to, of all people, the Liberal Democrats: not, it has to be said with great understatement, a party that shares many values with those of the likes of Nigel Farage.
The decision to hold the contest on what will be David Cameron’s 48th birthday has injected more levity into proceedings, though given the speed of the count the result won’t be announced until the early hours of the following morning.
Boris Johnson has selflessly ruled himself out as a potential Tory candidate, insisting he’s already “whacked in his CV at Uxbridge” (though he has yet to be accepted). This hasn’t stopped Tory MPs asking, nay imploring, the mayor of London to “prove his leadership credentials” and put his name forward.
The East Anglia Daily Times, which is understandably running two or three stories a day about the by-election, reported Tory chiefs boasting they have people “queuing up” to take on Douglas Carswell. “You would be surprised at the number of people who are so disgusted at what he has done,” said Simon Martin-Redman, chairman of the Clacton Conservative Association. “Some people think he is a turncoat, some people are more voluble in their language.”
Tory MEP Vicky Ford and Castle Point MP Rebecca Harris have already been campaigning in the constituency; Carswell and Farage were out and about the morning after the defection, and again at the weekend. I enjoyed reading of one woman’s reaction at seeing Carswell, as reported by the Press Association: “The traitor’s blocking the street! Stop blocking the street, traitor!”
Meanwhile Labour has selected local councillor Tim Young to fight the seat. Along with the Tories, the Lib Dems and Green party have yet to pick their candidate.
All of this dates from just the past 72 hours. Imagine what it’s going to be like between now and 9 October. Yes, we’ve got the Scottish referendum and all the party conferences between now and then, but each will be coloured in some way by the hullabaloo in Clacton.
Alex Salmond has already been winding up his opponents in the No campaign by highlighting the antics of their pro-Union ally. “If Mr Farage comes in a blaze of publicity in the next few days,” Salmond said, “ignore him, he will go back to Clacton very soon.” The In response, the No campaign has insisted: “Ukip have no part to play in our campaign. We are campaigning against nationalist politics of division and grievance.”
Barring a mighty upset, Douglas Carswell will still be MP for Clacton the morning after polling day. I wonder if this all-but-inevitable outcome will draw the sting somewhat from the result. For now, the only real surprise or shock about this by-election would be if Carswell is defeated.
A more significant moment in political history will come if and when Ukip are able to win a parliamentary seat by defeating an incumbent with one of their own – not by relying on a defector or sitting MP to hand them a ready-made majority.