What You Can Get Away With » defections

Various people were buzzing this morning thanks to this story in the Telegraph where UKIP treasurer Stuart Wheeler talks about people he’s had lunch with recently. With this, and the bizarre ‘Sarah Teather’s about to join Labour’ rumour that went round last week, it seems we’re in a new silly season, probably caused when everyone got confused by an MP going on a televised holiday to Australia in November.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, MPs crossing the floor is something that’s happened very rarely in modern times. (See here for a list) They also tend to happen as surprises, because negotiations about defection take place in secret, not with the full blast of publicity. I don’t doubt that Stuart Wheeler has had lunch with Tory MPs, and he might even have floated the idea of them joining UKIP at those lunches, but equally those MPs might well have thought that they were doing their bit for the Conservative Party and trying to lure him back. If UKIP had one Tory MP close to defecting to them, let alone eight, they’d be keeping very quiet about it until it was a done deal. Making noise about it seems to be more about attempting to drum up some interest and make Tory backbenchers restless, rather than a signal of imminent defections.

Indeed, one might want to ask what a Tory MP would get out of switching? The prize the Tory anti-Europeans appear to be seeking at the moment is an electoral pact with UKIP, and if that deal seems possible – and Nigel Farage appears to be indicating that if the Tories defenestrate David Cameron, he might be open to it – why would you defect to a party that’s going to step aside to give a free run to the one you’ve just left? (Though there’s an interesting question about how much impact a pact like that would have – see Anthony Wells’ latest piece for more on that) Defections tend to take place between competing parties, not ones that are seeking to come to an accommodation.

From UKIP’s perspective, there’s also what you could call the Kilroy factor to be aware of too. They got lots of headlines from Robert Kilroy-Silk joining the party in 2004, but the subsequent turmoil caused by his belief that he was the biggest fish in a very small pond damaged the party. UKIP may want MPs, but do they want ones who’ll get lots more publicity than the rest of the party and try to mould the party around them?

I wouldn’t be that surprised to see a Tory MP switch to UKIP at some point in this Parliament, but like many defections, it’ll likely be someone disaffected (and possibly deselected), rather than some mass ideological walkout. They’ll continue to woo Tory MPs, but any actual defection will likely come after a period of silence, not a PR blitz.

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From a comment on Lib Dem Voice:

It is my expectation that, when the Tory right seeks to exert their power and to remove Cameron as leader, that many would give serious consideration to leaving the Tory party and joining the more moderate Liberal Democrats.

To borrow a phrase: sadly, no.

I’ve been following and involved in British politics for at least two decades now, and one constant of that time has been confident predictions of imminent splits in one party or another. I’ve made quite a few of them myself, and it’s this long tradition of failed predictions that has taught me that large-scale party splits are an incredibly rare event in British politics. Even singular defections are pretty rare, and they increase in rarity with the seniority of the potential defectee – the most senior defectee in recent times would appear to be Shaun Woodward.

I think attitudes can be coloured – and particularly in the Liberal Democrats – in that we are in a period where there has been a comparatively recent major party split when the SDP formed in 1981. Rather than being a part of regular politics, though, that was an exceptional event, notable because large numbers of MPs and senior party figures (including former Cabinet members) left one party and formed another. Aside from the contortions over the National Government and Mosley’s New Party in 1931, the last time that had happened in British politics was Chamberlain and the Liberal Unionists in 1888.

What tends to happen in British politics is that those disheartened by the direction of their party take one of two courses. They stay and fight, trying to bring the party back to the position it had before or they decide to give up on active politics altogether and find a new way to occupy their time. In terms of the contemporary Conservatives, one could see Ken Clarke as an example of the first and Michael Portillo as an example of the second – those who take the second option usually try the first one before moving on. They very rarely switch to another party, even one of their own creation.

It’s easy to say ‘that’ll definitely split the party’ but permanent large-scale splits are a very rare occurrence in British politics. What’s much more common is the losing of conviction and the withering away of the minority. You’re much more likely to see former rebels making documentaries than signing up for another party.

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