Douglas Carswell is brave, principled and mistaken. He has recognised something that many people do not, which is that he was in the wrong party. For all the fashionable fuss about the Conservative Party’s lurch to the Eurosceptic right, Mr Carswell realised that the Prime Minister intends not just to keep the United Kingdom together but to keep it in Europe.
The number of Conservative MPs who believe that the country would be “better off out” of the European Union is hard to estimate, because it is not a point of view that is compatible with ministerial office, but it is smaller than Mr Carswell would like it to be. His departure to the sticky embrace of Nigel Farage suggests that the “better off outers” are not going to prevail in the Conservative Party in the foreseeable future.
For that, let us be truly grateful. Mr Carswell would seem to believe that the goal of withdrawal from the EU is more likely to be achieved by pressure on the Conservative Party from outside than from within. Those of us on the pro-EU side of the argument are entitled to draw the conclusion that this means that the goal is further away now than it has been for some time. For the fundamentals remain unchanged. The Conservatives are the only party able to deliver a referendum on EU membership.
If Mr Carswell’s defection was designed to damage the Conservative Party, it makes a referendum less likely – Ed Miliband, the benefactor of any such damage, has wisely refused to propose a referendum on a proposition with which he does not agree. Meanwhile, public opinion has moved, since the euro crisis has abated, in favour of Britain staying in Europe.
If Mr Carswell’s defection was intended to push Mr Cameron towards a more aggressive stance in his so-called renegotiation of British terms of membership of the EU, in the hope that this would push us towards the exit, he can whistle for it. The Prime Minister has little enough room for manoeuvre as it is, given that every one of our 27 partners would have to agree to the deal.
Yet those, including this newspaper, who support EU membership should not be dismissive of Mr Carswell. He is a resolute democrat who believes that our system is broken, and he is fitfully imaginative about new ways in which people can be engaged in decisions that they otherwise feel excluded from.
There is a deep democratic deficit in the way the EU is run (as this weekend’s carve-up of top jobs will help to confirm). There is also a strong feeling of alienation from political parties in the House of Commons. This is an anti-politician mood that Mr Carswell has managed to avoid, admittedly with the freedom of the back-benches, which is one reason he is so popular in his constituency, Clacton-on-Sea, where he will no doubt win the by-election easily. (And the principle of resubmitting yourself to the electorate when you change parties is an honourable one: when Bruce Douglas-Mann tried it, upon his defection from Labour to the SDP in 1982, he lost.)
We would welcome Mr Carswell’s re-election in more honest colours: it means that the EU withdrawalist position will have an MP in its own right rather than as a rebel minority in a major party. There is a lot of backward-looking baggage to go with that, from opposition to gay marriage to support of grammar schools, but let us at least have that tendency represented in the Commons, the more securely to defeat it.Reuse content