Why are the Conservatives so serene after losing the Clacton by-election and seeing their vote collapse in Heywood and Middleton? It is not that the party has finally decided endless fighting is no longer a good idea, but that it is holding its breath for the Rochester and Strood by-election. If Mark Reckless, the second Ukip defector, wins this, then the meltdown in David Cameron’s party will make the Labour response this week look positively icy.
The Tories had quickly accepted Douglas Carswell would win in Clacton and so there was little excuse for even their more febrile factions to panic. But the party believes it has a good chance of winning, partly because it’s only the 271st friendliest seat for Ukip, and partly because Reckless does not have Carswell’s personal popularity.
They must keep Rochester in order to deter other would-be defectors. If a seat as tricky to win as this falls to Nigel Farage’s party, then other wavering MPs may well decide Ukip can make even apparently safe Tory seats entirely unsafe, and jump ship.
So it’s no surprise the party plans to fight this by-election hard. It has to. Some are boasting of an aggressive campaign to wear Reckless down psychologically, surmising that he’s far less robust an individual than Carswell (he has already sounded rather ratty in local radio interviews). Former colleagues also claim Reckless is too socially awkward to appeal to voters without the Tory brand, with one former ally saying ‘he regards voters like they are some sort of specimen in a science lab’. But Tory sources deny the campaign will be so personal. The official plan is for the Tories to contrast their serious offer for the country with a ‘circus from Ukip, with Farage having a pint’.