If Douglas Caswell’s “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” routine in Clacton doesn’t give twitchy Tory MPs the nudge they need to jump ship, then Rochester & Strood might. In Clacton, Carswell’s personal appeal undoubtedly won out. Mark Reckless, however, has all the charisma of a two week old helium balloon. If he wins his by-election, then UKIP can actually claim to offer right-wingers a decent chance of re-election.
In such an event — which at this stage is far from a certainty — the fear that Grant Shapps can put into his ranks (Who on earth is afraid of Grant Shapps?!! -Ed) will dissipate, and Tories will start to examine their majorities and ideological leanings, and weigh up where they would be happier.
So what of Southend’s two MPs? Are they likely to abandon the yacht Cameron for the SS Farage?
James Duddridge MP – Rochford & Southend East
Both Southend seats are Tory-held, and both are ostensibly considered safe seats. I’ve blogged before about why I think that James Duddridge’s 11,000 majority in Rochford & Southend East is somewhat illusory — in short, a Conservative Party in retreat, a resurgent Labour party, the UKIP insurgence, and the fact that he has systematically alienated his own supporters.
At the election count this year, three Tories — who will remain nameless — separately told me that they wouldn’t be campaigning or voting for James. Not to mention that he was swanning around happy as Larry, even amidst the slaughter of his defenestrated councillor comrades. I get that he wanted to put a brave face on the results, but he looked either oblivious, uncaring, or both.
So if he isn’t as secure as he seems, might he jump? Well, he might have done a month or so ago. It has been a general assumption in Southend politics that James Moyies would be the UKIP candidate. That shows you the perils of making asumptions, because UKIP members inexplicably went for the unknown Cllr Floyd Waterworth, and in the process turned their back on Moyies’ charisma and campaigning ability. Moyies, as I have said, might have been able to unseat Duddridge, maybe even win. I really cannot see Waterworth managing anything comparable.
So the threat from UKIP has lessened. There is another reason why he probably won’t defect. If the local Tories can’t stand him, what do you think the local Kippers will think? His voting for equal marriage (probably the one measure on which we agree) alienated him from his own members, and won’t endear him to UKIP. If he does defect, it’s hard to see them accepting former banker Duddridge as their candidate.
David Amess MP – Southend West
In terms of strict majority, David Amess seems less safe than Duddridge. He had a 7,000 majority in 2010, which had been eaten into from 2005 by the Lib Dem bounce. That, I think, is unlikely to re-occur. That Lib Dem vote will, I suspect, split between Amess and Labour’s Julian Ware-Lane, I can’t see it going to UKIP. Similarly, UKIP will struggle, I suspect, to pull significant levels of Tory voters, having selected a party apparatchik living in Hampshire.
Amess is also more popular than Duddridge (When not hiding in hairdressers from reporters’ questions about his expenses… -Ed), having not gone out of his way to alienate his members. At the count in May he, at least, looked suitably sombre commiserating with unlucky candidates.
Amess is, though, considerably more right wing than Duddridge. He is a staunch eurosceptic, he wants to bring back capital punishment, ban abortion almost entirely, and yes, voted against equal marriage. Policy wise, he is more closely aligned to UKIP than the leadership of his own party.
He is, though, something of a grandfather figure on his backbenches. I am not sure that he would give up the status that entails to defect, without any specific electoral need to (n.b. If the electoral numbers were different, I am sure he would without a second thought. He made a chicken run from Basildon to Southend West when he saw the ’97 Labour landslide coming, after all).
So for various reasons I reckon that Southend should be fairly safe from MPs crossing to the purple corner. I’ve been wrong before, though, and doubtless will again, but on the balance of facts it seems unlikely. Both have more to lose than gain from a defection, and will probably try their hands as Conservatives next May.
If either feels like proving me wrong, though…