Rochester and Strood by-election: Conservatives brace for further defections to Ukip as voters go to the polls

Tories fear defeat after a series of opinion polls gave Ukip a comfortable lead

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Indy Politics

The Conservatives were bracing themselves for further defections to Ukip as voters went to the polls in the Rochester and Strood by-election today.

Conservative jitters about Ukip winning its second elected MP increased after Mark Reckless, the former Tory MP who defected to Ukip and triggered the by-election, claimed that two other Tory MPs were considering switching to Nigel Farage’s party.

The Tories already fear defeat in today’s contest, after a series of opinion polls during the campaign gave Ukip a comfortable lead despite five visits by David Cameron and Tory promises to “throw the kitchen sink” at what is seen as the most important by-election for many years.

Now Mr Cameron faces the prospect that the bloody nose he expects when the result is announced in the early hours of tomorrow morning will not be the end of his Ukip nightmare. Loyalist Tory MPs fear further defections will give Mr Farage momentum until next May’s general election.

Mr Reckless said: “During the campaign I have spoken with two Conservative MPs about the possibility of their moving over and I think they will want to see what the [by-election] result is before making any decisions. One of them I had discussions with by telephone and the other I met in an undisclosed location, not in the constituency. It is a very individual decision. And I feed back to Nigel [Farage] on those conversations.”

Although Tory ministers played down the possibility of more MPs jumping ship,  party whips are powerless to stop that since switchers are unlikely to advertise their intentions in  advance. Mr Reckless consistently denied planning to join Ukip before appearing at its annual conference in September to announce his decision.

Speculation is rife at Westminster about likely Tory defectors. Peter Bone, MP for Wellingborough, will speak at Cambridge University tonight in favour of a motion saying that “Ukip has been good for British politics.”  He said: “My view is that Ukip membership should come back and be part of a centre-right party in this country.”

John Baron, MP for Basildon and Billericay, is also tripped as a possible switcher after Ukip dropped its candidate in a neighbouring seat to “keep it warm”  for him. But Mr Baron said today: “Rest assured I'm happy where I am. That is standing for the Conservatives in Basildon and Billericay - as long as they still want me to!”

Mark Pritchard, MP for The Wrekin, sparked more rumours after being  photographed with Mr Farage at an event, but said later it was a “friendly photo, not a sign of any political allegiance.”

The Tories are lowering expectations about their performance in Rochester and Strood, in the hope of switching attention to Labour’s expected third place in an area Labour represented until 2010. Labour insists the constituency boundaries have changed and that it would not have won the seat in 2005 on the current boundaries.

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