The Conservatives were plunged into turmoil over Europe today when Douglas Carswell, one of their Eurosceptic MPs, dramatically defected to Ukip.
In a parting shot at Mr Cameron, Mr Carswell said the Prime Minister was not “serious about real change”, pointing to his intention to recommend an “in” vote in the in/out referendum on Europe he has promised in 2017. He did not believe Mr Cameron’s policy was “sincere,” saying the Tory leadership wanted to secure "just enough" to pretend change was happening.
Rubbing salt in the Tory wounds, Mr Carswell told a Westminster press conference he would resign his Clacton seat and fight the ensuring by-election under Ukip’s banner. The contest, expected in October or November, will cast a shadow over the Tory conference and put Mr Cameron under intense pressure to say he is prepared to recommend withdrawal from the EU if he does not negotiate a good enough new deal for Britain. Bookmakers made Mr Carswell the strong favourite to retain his seat, where he won 53 per cent of the vote at the 2010 election.
Amid speculation that other Tory MPs might jump ship to Nigel Farage’s party, Mr Carswell said it would have been easier for him to "muddle along" as a Tory backbencher until next May’s general election but declared: “As someone who's always answered directly to the independent-minded people of Essex, there is only one honourable thing for me to do. I must seek permission from my boss, the people of Clacton. I will now resign from Parliament and stand for Ukip in the by-election that now follows."
Mr Carswell is highly respected at Westminster. He has also campaigned for political reform, such as the right for constituents to be able to sack MPs by forcing a by-election.
A jubilant Mr Farage, who has repeatedly predicted high-profile defections to his party, described Mr Carswell’s move as the "bravest, most honourable and noble thing I've seen in British politics.”
The announcement gave Ukip crucial momentum after signs that its opinion poll ratings had slipped since its victory in the May European Parliament elections. The by-election will keep Ukip in the spotlight for the next few months.
The Conservatives were caught on the hop by the surprise defection, which came on the day the Prime Minister returned to Downing Street after a family holiday in Cornwall. William Hague, the Leader of the Commons, said: “It is a regrettable and deeply counterproductive thing to do, because the only chance of real change in Europe and upholding a referendum in this country in which the people of this country can decide to stay in or leave the EU is the election of a Conservative government next May, a majority Conservative government. Anything that makes that harder is damaging the chances of real change in Europe."