LONDON (AFP) – Traitor to some, the bravest man in British politics to others, Douglas Carswell is set to make waves on Thursday by being elected as the UK Independence Party’s first lawmaker.
A defector from Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative party, Carswell is expected to sweep to victory in a by-election on Cameron’s birthday that he himself triggered in the run-down seaside town of Clacton, southeast England.
For Nigel Farage’s arch-eurosceptics UKIP, who have drawn away Tory support, 43-year-old Carswell is their biggest prize yet.
“He has guts,” said John Wrigley, the party’s membership secretary. “Two years ago I wrote him a letter to join us. When he finally joined the party, I cried with joy.”
Carswell says the decision cost him “many sleepless nights” but he was forced to leave the Tories by Cameron and the leadership’s distance from the lives of ordinary people.
“I’ve been a Conservative all my adult life,” he told AFP.
“But I came to realise that the party that produced Margaret Thatcher, the party that rescued this country from where it was in the 1980s, the party that produced Winston Churchill, is now led by a tiny clique of people in Westminster,” he said.
UKIP won the largest share of votes in European Parliament elections earlier this year as part of a Europe-wide rise in votes for protest and populist parties.
A radical libertarian thinker who was seen as a maverick among the Conservatives, Carswell grew up in Uganda, where his parents were doctors, and worked in television and finance before entering politics, and he defected to UKIP in August.
He is committed to Britain leaving the European Union – the central tenet of UKIP’s manifesto and an issue that Cameron has promised will be put to a referendum by 2017 if he is re-elected.
The party’s beer-loving leader Farage hailed Carswell’s move as the “bravest, most honourable and noble thing I’ve seen in British politics”.
But former Conservative colleagues were unforgiving about the switch, which was followed a month later by that of his close friend and fellow Tory lawmaker Mark Reckless.
Cameron, who turns 48 on Thursday, called Carswell’s move “deeply regrettable” and “counter-productive”, while lawmaker Mark Pritchard said, “Douglas has been flirting with UKIP for some time now.”
Activists from his former local party were even harsher, labelling him a “snake” and a “traitor”.
Some observers argue that Carswell’s switch to UKIP – labelled “the kippers” by the Tories, a type of herring – was opportunistic rather than ideological.
Clacton is ranked as the most UKIP-friendly of any seat in the British parliament by academics Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford, experts on europhobes.
National opinion polls currently put UKIP in third place behind the Conservatives and Labour, potentially putting them in a strong position to join a coalition government after next year’s general election.
“(Carswell’s) move is a politically savvy one for him because it’s placing him in a very high-profile position on the political landscape,” Jocelyn Evans, professor of politics at Leeds University, told AFP.
“He’s very well positioned, he’ll be the UKIP MP in Westminster now, it gives him a profile.”
Whatever his motivations, opinion polls give Carswell an overwhelming lead over his Conservative rival in the election, former sitcom actor Giles Watling.
One poll put his lead at 44 points.
If Carswell and, later, Reckless do win their by-elections, UKIP will be hoping that more Conservatives cross to their side, with just seven months to go until a tightly fought general election.