The UK Independence Party scored a sensational victory early this morning when Douglas Carswell became the first MP ever elected under the party’s colours.
He romped home in a by-election in Clacton, in Essex, with 21,113 votes, trouncing his Tory opponent, Giles Watling, who scored 8,709. Labour came third with 3,959, while the Liberal Democrats trailed with a humiliating 483.
In his acceptance speech, Mr Carswell said that if Ukip remained true to its principles, “there is nothing that we cannot achieve, in Essex, East Anglia, in England, and in the whole country beyond – and, yes, next in Rochester.”
Nigel Farage hailed the vote "the best night in UKIP's history" as he warned the Tories and Labour: "We're after you - you have underestimated us", Sky News reported.
The Ukip leader added: "What it shows is that UKIP is now a truly national party. We will now take the people's army of UKIP to the Rochester and Strood, and we will give that absolutely everything we have got."
In Rochester, the Tories face another potentially disastrous by-election after its MP Mark Reckless became the second Tory to defect to Ukip.
Turn-out was 51.2 per cent - unusually high for a parliamentary by-election – a tribute partly to the huge effort that volunteers put into plastering Clacton and its surrounding villages with purple coloured Ukip posters.
Nigel Farage was also cheered by an extraordinary near miss in the previously safe Labour seat of Heywood and Middleton, where Labour’s candidate, Liz McGinnis, hung on by just 617 votes, after a recount. She received 11,633 votes, 40.9 per cent of the total, to Ukip’s 11,016, or 38.7 per cent. For Labour that result was far too close to comfort, in a seat they held with a majority of 5,971 in 2010. The result, on a low turn out of just 38 per cent, amounted to an 18 per cent swing from Labour to Ukip, who were a poor fourth in 2010. The by election was caused by the death of the Labour MP Jim Dobbie.
By taking 38.7 per cent of the vote in Heywood and Middleton, Ukip achieved what was up to that moment their best result ever in a parliamentary by-election - though that record lasted for just an hour while the Clacton count was completed.
Losing Clacton is a blow for the Conservatives, who saw their share of the vote fall to around a fifth of the total, down from 53 per cent of votes cast when Carswell was their candidate in 2010. The early indication was that the Liberal Democrats had lost their deposit.
During the day, the Conservatives tried to gain political advantage from the fact that Mr Carswell was unable to vote, despite posing for photographers outside a polling booth, because he lives outside the constituency boundary. The Tory candidate, Giles Watling is a local councillor.
The Tories will put up a desperate fight to hold onto Rochester and Strood, against Mark Reckless. Privately, Conservative party managers had accepted that Clacton was lost, but are hoping they can halt Ukip’s relentless rise by holding on to Rochester. Two Ukip by-elections victories in quick succession would seriously interfere with the message the Tory want to send their natural supporters at next year’s general election – that supporting Ukip is a wasted vote because their candidates have no hope of being elected and defecting to them only helps Labour.
In Clacton, Ukip benefited from a general disillusionment with the main political parties, made worse by high unemployment. A report last year by the Centre for Social Justice said that 54 per cent of 16- to 64-year-olds in one of Clacton’s electoral wards were without jobs and reliant on benefits.
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