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Those poaching kippers

Those poaching kippers

THE Conservative Party conference is in full swing in Birmingham, and deceit is in the air. On Saturday a Eurosceptic, serially rebellious Tory MP, Mark Reckless, announced that he was defecting to UKIP, triggering a by-election in his Kent constituency of Rochester and Strood. His Tory colleagues are incandescent. In his speech to delegates yesterday Grant Shapps, the party’s usually breezy chairman, furrowed his brow and alleged that the Mr Reckless had “lied and lied and lied again” about his intentions. The party even released a voicemail message in which the MP affirmed his loyalty just a day before his defection. He retorts that his departure was a principled stand against Britain’s membership of the EU.

The Tory vitriol is sincere (in a visit to a Rochester pub after his announcement Mr Reckless was harangued by local activists furious at his perfidy). But it is also calculated. Mr Reckless is the second of the party’s MPs to defect to UKIP. Last month Douglas Carswell, an outspoken libertarian, shocked Westminster by jumping ship. On October 9th he will fight a by-election in his Essex seat of Clacton under the UKIP banner. Tory high command is worried that a third defection is to come. Chris Kelly, another Eurosceptic rebel, is causing strategists particular concerns. The scorn poured on Mr Reckless, then, is meant as a deterrent.

Conservatives are also responding to Saturday’s news – and UKIP’s other successes, like its buzzing conference in Doncaster last week – with policy. In his speech this morning George Osborne unveiled a tax cut on inherited pension pots, a transparent bid to woo the older voters who are disproportionately prone to support UKIP. In his address on Wednesday David Cameron may announce that the Conservatives will pull Britain out of the European Convention on Human Rights, or ECHR (a favourite Eurosceptic bugbear), if they win a majority next year.

Still, even if further defections are headed off and the rest of the conference goes smoothly, neither UKIP nor its fanciers on the Tory right will slip from the headlines any time soon. Mr Carswell will almost certainly win his by-election, giving the party its first elected MP. Another, triggered by the death of a sitting Labour MP, will take place in Manchester on the same day; giving the party a chance to demonstrate its growing purchase on left-wing voters. Mr Reckless’s constituents will vote later in October (the Tories are said to be delaying the by-election as much as possible, the better to build up a rival candidacy). This will not necessarily produce a UKIP victory, but a fresh autumn gust of publicity for the party is guaranteed.

The strongest reasons to expect UKIP’s prominence to outlive conference season are evident at the current Tory conference. As some canny observers in the party have been pointing out, the Conservative leadership’s attempt to strike compromises between UKIP positions and their own is doomed to fail. Earlier today Ken Clarke, a pro-European grandee, reportedly accused the party of imitating its new rival: “We don’t explain why it’s actually a rather nasty organisation, and that what it advocates is complete folly.” Dominic Grieve, another former minister, made it clear on Friday that he would be deeply unhappy if Mr Cameron pledged to extract Britain from international legal commitments like the ECHR.

But in a party gripped by the ideological and personal dramas on its right flank, those on its left are paid little heed, however good their arguments. Perhaps, if they really wanted to make the headlines, they could take a lesson in limelight-grabbing from Mr Reckless – and defect to the Liberal Democrats.

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