Douglas who? When the news came yesterday on my Twitter feed that Douglas Carswell had defected to Ukip and was going to force a by-election by resigning his Commons seat for Clacton I could bet my house on the fact that most readers would be scratching their heads wondering who on earth this man Carswell is.
Only a relatively small group of political anoraks or Tory activists in Scotland will be familiar with his blogging, books and speeches – but in the short time since Carswell arrived at Westminster he’s made a big impression, for he is a man of principle and ideas – something quite rare in British politics today.
The son of a Scottish doctor, Wilson Carswell – the inspiration for the book and film The Last King of Scotland and one of the first medical researchers to identify HIV/Aids in Uganda – Douglas Carswell is a radical free thinker.
A libertarian Conservative, he is devoutly anti-European Union and brimming over with ideas to empower people rather than politicians. Along with his close political ally, the Tory MEP Dan Hannan, he is credited with many policies that seek to deliver “localism” through direct elections of council or government officials and the reduction of state regulation.
As a result of his tub-thumping speeches at fringe meetings and his pamphlets and books he is (or was!) highly popular with Tory party activists who tend to like members of the awkward squad.
Although never given a ministerial appointment by David Cameron, he has been influential both within his party and in parliament – most notably being responsible for single-handedly challenging the then Speaker Michael Martin and lodging a motion of no confidence that ultimately forced his replacement in 2009.
I first got to know Douglas Carswell back in 2005 just after he had been elected and while I was a Tory member at Holyrood. I put my name to a pamphlet called Direct Democracy that he and Hannan had written. It became a popular source of ideas and was often used by David Cameron to suggest he wanted to deliver significant reform and change – but it is the Prime Minister’s reluctance to deliver that change that has now led to Carswell’s change of party.
Because he has decided to join Ukip the focus will be on his belief that David Cameron is not serious about renegotiating the UK’s membership of the EU – and this is indeed a big part of his decision.
But it is also clear from what he said yesterday that Cameron’s failure to introduce a Bill that would give the electorate the power of recall (where a large enough constituents’ petition can force a by-election for an MP) was also a significant factor.
It is entirely in keeping in the honourable approach he takes that having changed party he would then submit himself to a by-election where he can have his judgement endorsed or rejected by the people he represents.
Carswell has built up his constituency majority from 920 in 2005 to more than 12,068 in 2010 and appears unassailable.
There is speculation that Boris Johnson could be put up against him but that would be most surprising as Johnson owes David Cameron no favours so why would he take on a potential ally of the future?
For the Prime Minister this could not come at a worse time, the House of Commons returns from recess on Monday and the by-election will be a running sore throughout the conference season.
Politically, it brings the focus back to the European Union issue by raising the damaging question of just how serious is Cameron about renegotiation? From what Carswell says, not at all and that the PM will settle for the minimum possible to claim a victory over Brussels officials – but that it will amount to very little in reality.
Many pundits in Scotland are of course saying that Carswell’s defection to Ukip is good news for the Nationalists because it talks up the spectre of the UK leaving the EU – although that seems a fairly big leap this early on.
More likely is that by helping Nigel Farage get a foothold in Westminster by becoming its first elected MP after the by-election, the Ukip bandwagon will continue to grow enough to cost the Tories many seats and help Labour win next year’s General Election.
The stronger prospect of a Labour victory is bad news for Alex Salmond’s Nationalist campaign as he has less credibility in scaremongering about Tories when they are about to be shown the door.
It also means there is no prospect of a referendum on EU membership – making Carswell’s decision seem odd. But that’s Carswell, a man of principle, he must believe that if there is a Labour victory it will see the end of David Cameron and a realignment of the Conservative and Ukip politicians to then fight the next election in 2020. If not then Ukip will be kingmakers with the price of power being that EU referendum.
Playing the long game can be the only strategic explanation – for at the moment the men raising the champagne glasses must be Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, toasting The Last King of Clacton.