In a corner of the Ukip campaign office in Rochester, a light-up orb is spinning, with the words ‘Vote Mark Reckless’ endlessly switching from yellow to purple. It’s hypnotic, if disconcerting, but also unnecessary because voters don’t need to be persuaded to vote for him. The by-election that Ukip thought would be a tricky one is turning out to be easier than anyone predicted.
Poll after poll has put Mark Reckless as the winner of next week’s vote, and fewer and fewer Tories privately think that their party will win. Yet the Tories were boasting at their conference in October that they were going to beat Reckless and humiliate him. So why has it gone so wrong?
One of the problems is that the Conservatives, buzzing about in their conference bubble in Birmingham, oversold themselves as the natural victors. Back in Westminster, Tracey Crouch — the MP for next-door Chatham and Aylesford — briefed colleagues on the constituency and argued that its voters were ‘more thoughtful’ than those in Clacton, and would therefore vote Tory. Reckless himself told the Ukip conference when he defected that he really needed his new party’s help because ‘Rochester and Strood is not Clacton’.
No one on the ground complains about the support they’re getting from Westminster — the Prime Minister made his fourth visit this week and the whips forced MPs to visit five times (though Ukip antidote Boris Johnson is staying well away because his airport plan for the Thames Estuary makes him a controversial figure around there). But there have been strategic decisions that have helped Nigel Farage’s party, too.
Reckless has benefited from the Tory habit of pre-briefing all its moves to the media. He read that the candidate replacing him would be selected by a postal primary and so he pipped the Tories to the post: he sent out a survey of his own to voters which arrived a few days before the Tory postal primary forms. Reckless believes that voters were a little fed up by the time the second letter popped through their letterbox, and fatigue might explain why only 5,688 people bothered to vote in the Tory selection.
The low primary turnout was another warning sign that voters might not be particularly interested in a Conservative candidate. Kelly Tolhurst has the benefit of being truly local, but she performed poorly in the BBC debate between candidates, in which only Labour’s Naushabah Khan gave the impression that she’d do a good job in Parliament — and she isn’t the one with a chance of winning. Neither side thinks the other has a decent candidate, which you might think perfectly normal in a by-election, but the Tories accepted that they were up against a class act when they fought Ukip’s Diane James in Eastleigh last year.
Oddly, for a party that prides itself on its political prowess, the Tories have failed to exploit Reckless’s weaknesses. They have highlighted his U-turns on local housebuilding, but when they were preparing for the campaign there was much talk of ‘psychological warfare’ and an assumption that Reckless would not be able to cope with this. So far, however, the only thing that seems to have really rattled Ukip is a complaint from the local hospital that the chief executive of the NHS Trust featured in one of its leaflet. Other plans to attack his character have fallen by the wayside because the party has failed to stand them up.
Ukip’s campaign machine is getting slicker with each by-election. This is the first time the party has managed to knock on every door in the constituency and even return for another go at undecided voters. Lord Ashcroft’s poll this week found that 84 per cent of people had heard from Ukip, compared to 81 per cent who’d been contacted by the Conservatives.
Another important element is the collapse in Labour’s vote. It represented the then Medway seat from 1997 until 2010, when it came second in the newly formed constituency. If Labour had made the effort in Rochester and Strood, it could have deprived Ukip of a win.
Instead, when The Spectator followed Reckless around a formerly Labour ex–council estate this week, the voters who opened their doors to him were largely supportive. One woman launched into a textbook soliloquy about ‘that Cameron who doesn’t keep his promises’, which the Ukip candidate loved, until she squinted suspiciously at him and asked: ‘But how do I know you’re not the same as the rest of them?’
Even if he does win next week, Reckless will still need to convince such voters as this woman that he’s ‘not the same as all the rest of them’. Already, the Ukip team working to get Reckless elected talk darkly about the need for him to ‘work hard, so voters want to keep him’. The polls suggest Ukip voters may turn back to the Tories next year, and a sizeable chunk would rather have David Cameron than Farage as prime minister. Although winning Rochester and Strood may help Ukip lure more defectors, its bigger challenge is to morph from a party that helps voters kick the establishment in a by-election to one that voters can take seriously when they think about the next government.
There are still one or two Tories who think they’ll win this time. Michael Gove and Crouch have both bet £50 on a victory, while one campaigning veteran who visited this week told The Spectator that although Crouch’s assessment of the constituency was wrong, he was quite optimistic. But the possibility of a loss has already been priced into the political narrative, which will make losing the seat a little easier to bear.
That’s not to say the Tories should shrug off a bad result. If nothing else, Rochester shows that you cannot trust mainstream politicians’ judgments about which voters remain ‘theirs’. Next time you see Tories full of complacent swagger, boasting that they’ll pop Ukip’s bubble, it’s best to treat them with the same scepticism as that Strood voter, squinting suspiciously at the candidate on her doorstep.