David Cameron suffered a damaging double blow on the eve of the Conservative Party conference as Mark Reckless became the second Tory MP in two months to defect to Ukip, while Brooks Newmark MP quit his role as Minister for civil society in the face of a Sunday tabloid sting over explicit images.
Mr Reckless, the member for Rochester and Strood, followed in the footsteps of Clacton MP Douglas Carswell as he resigned from the Conservatives, triggering a by-election that will cause further headaches for the party leadership.
Only hours after Mr Reckless announced his defection, David Cameron faced a second embarrassing resignation when Mr Newmark quit the Government after he was reportedly caught by a Sunday tabloid sending explicit photographs of himself to reporters posing as users of a social networking website.
Earlier in the day, Mr Reckless appeared on stage at a jubilant Ukip conference in Doncaster and launched a stinging attack on senior figures in the Conservative Party, claiming that they were “part of the problem that is holding our country back”. Mr Reckless denounced the Government’s attempts to limit immigration and said voters felt “ripped off and lied to”.
The former economist was unveiled by Ukip’s beaming leader, Nigel Farage, to a standing ovation and spontaneous chants of “Ukip, Ukip”. Mr Reckless, 43, said he would leave Parliament immediately to stand as a Ukip candidate in Rochester and Strood, where he won a majority of nearly 10,000 for the Tories in the 2010 general election.
A Downing Street spokesman said his decision was “completely illogical”. A Tory spokesman said: “He says he wants action on a European referendum, tax and immigration. The only party capable of delivering on these issues is the Conservative Party – and a vote for Ukip is a vote for Ed Miliband.” The defection boosted Labour after an embarrassing week at its own conference in which leader Ed Miliband forgot key parts of his speech.
Michael Dugher MP, shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, said: “This is a hammer blow to David Cameron’s already weakened authority. On the eve of his conference we again see that Conservatives’ confidence in [him] is plummeting. David Cameron has always pandered to his right, and even they are now deserting him.”
He said it also showed that Ukip “are a party of Tory people, Tory policies and Tory money”.
Conservative MPs were furious at the effect the defection would have on the start of their conference in Birmingham today. It will also add to fears that more on the right of the party may be preparing to defect. Senior Ukip figures briefed last week that Philip Hollobone was “50/50” to switch, although he denied it.
Mr Reckless told the Ukip conference yesterday: “These decisions are never easy. But it is a decision I make from optimism, a decision that is born of belief that Britain can be better.” On immigration, he said his constituents needed to believe Britain had control over who comes into the country and in what numbers. “At the moment, we do not have any sense of that,” he said.
He questioned whether anyone supported a system “where we turn away the best and brightest from our Commonwealth, people with links and family here, to make room for unskilled immigration from southern and eastern Europe”. He went on: “I promise to cut immigration while treating people fairly and humanely. I cannot keep that promise as a Conservative. I can keep it as Ukip.”
Ukip announced yesterday that private polling for the party had identified three key parliamentary seats that it believes are eminently winnable: Boston and Skegness, Rotherham and North Thanet.
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