Mark Reckless, the second Conservative to leave the party and win a seat for the U.K. Independence Party in the last two months, won 42 percent of the vote in a special by-election in Rochester and Strood in southern England. With 16,869 votes, Mr. Reckless came nearly 3,000 votes ahead of the Conservative Party candidate, Kelly Tolhurst. The Labour Party candidate finished third.
Reckless's victory provided a major boost to the populist, right-wing party ahead of the general election next year. Political commentators across Britain were quick to declare it a disaster for mainstream parties, especially the ruling Conservatives. But the opposition Labour Party is also losing some support to UKIP, whose anti-immigration, anti-European Union platform appeals to a growing number of dissatisfied voters.
"We have beaten the governing party of the day in this sort of life and death struggle. It represents a huge, huge victory," UKIP leader Nigel Farage told Sky News, according to The Associated Press. "I would be very surprised, given where we are, if there weren't more defections between now and the next general election.”
Political observers in Britain widely expected Reckless to win. Even so, Mr. Cameron actively campaigned in the contested district in hopes of stalling UKIP’s momentum. He had vowed to win Rochester at all costs, The Economist reports, having personally campaigned there five times.
That he has now failed in his endeavour raises huge doubts about the Tories’ ability to regain their lost votes from UKIP in the coming general election. UKIP is polling around 17% nationally, with almost half its voters disgruntled Tories. So long as its vote-share remains in double figures, the Tories are unlikely to win next May.
In response to the rise of UKIP, Cameron has hardened his position on immigration and the EU, The New York Times reports. He promised last year that, if re-elected, he would hold a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the EU. He’s also planning to announce new proposals to reduce immigration into Britain from within the 28-nation bloc, even though it guarantees free movement of people.
Guardian political editor Patrick Wintour writes, “if there is a vaccine that can immunise voters from Ukip’s appeal, [political strategist] Lynton Crosby and the Conservative central office have not yet developed it.”
Yet, at this juncture Cameron looks supremely safe, the chief whip Michael Gove has declared he is 100% certain no further defections will occur, and the party seems content to wait both for Cameron’s imminent speech about Europe and an autumn statement by [Finance Minister] George Osborne that will try to change the subject by reminding voters of the risks still facing the British economy if it ever fell into the hands of Ed Balls.
Overall, the Rochester result does not seem such a thunderbolt, or so unexpected that the Tory party will self-destruct.
But with so much on the line, the Conservatives have already shifted their focus to the May election.
“I am absolutely determined to win this seat back at the next general election,” Cameron told reporters on Friday.