Tories fear UKIP defection may multiply
But it represents much more. Which is why, in the end, the Conservative party fears that the UKIP One on Horsham District Council may end up the UKIP One of Many
After a spate of UKIP defections, Tories all round are on red alert.
If you haven't read it yet, read our Political Editor, Alex Wickham, on why the Tories should step aside from UKIP in the South Shields by-election.
The latest to defect is senior, long-time Tory Councillor Roger Arthur. Arthur was a senior member of the Tory cabinet in Horsham. Read more about it here:
The shock decision by one of the most senior Conservative district councillors in West Sussex to quit the party and defect to UKIP took all his colleagues by surprise.
Roger Arthur, the deputy leader at Tory-controlled Horsham District Council and its cabinet member for finance, is a likeable and well respected man who has not only grappled with the authority’s tough financial decisions during the chill era of recession but has been a steadying force in his local political group.
He knows it will be tough to walk back into the council chamber through a sea of hard stares at the next meeting of the public body - but it is also something that he is prepared for and will accomplish with his normal good manners, gentle humour, and quiet force of personality.
Not that all his former Tory colleagues will feel bitter. There will, no doubt, be the odd glance of admiration and respect for the man who had the courage to articulate the concerns that some others share about the lack of national direction within their party and their belief of a loss of connection with the grass roots
The ‘UKIP One’, as this newspaper has already dubbed him, will not in isolation dramatically change the direction of Horsham District Council. He will be as powerless in the council chamber as any independent and has ceded much by leaving the cabinet in what his admirers will consider a principled stand and his detractors will view as a moment of madness.
The real impact of his defection will be in morale - both locally and nationally.
Judged by recent opinion polls and the Eastleigh by-election result, UKIP is the only party that is on the ascent. Every significant politician who joins its ranks - especially in advance of May’s county council elections - will send a shudder of fear down the collective spines of the party’s hierarchy.
Mr Arthur, in counties like West Sussex, represents the traditional core vote and his defection symbolises more effectively than anything else just how disillusioned many of the party faithful have become.
There is an added dimension too. For Horsham District Council of which Mr Arthur is still Deputy Leader lies in the heart of Francis Maude’s constituency - the man who while party chairman was most pleased to see David Cameron succeed as leader and who has done much to ‘modernise’ or ‘destroy’ the party, depending on your outlook.
So this defection has a national facet, as well.
But why defect? And why be disillusioned as a councillor when your prime concern is about collecting household refuse and ensuring the parks are clean and tidy?
The rise of UKIP is not, according to Conservative polling guru Lord Ashcroft, simply about the EU.
His verdict is that it’s a mix of things that attract voters to UKIP, policies are secondary. It is much more to do with outlook. Certainly, those who are attracted to UKIP are more preoccupied than most with immigration, and will occasionally complain about Britain’s contribution to the EU or the international aid budget. But these are often part of a greater dissatisfaction with the way they see things going in Britain.
Never was that more true than in Mr Arthur’s case. Although, for Mr Arthur, policy is important and he believes that UKIP is not a one trick Euro pony but has a comprehensive manifesto that addresses all of Britain’s needs.
Lib Dems and Labour can take heart from Mr Arthur’s change of direction. In the short-term more votes are being taken by UKIP from the Tories than other parties and the rise of UKIP in true blue communities like Horsham and West Sussex will split the right wing vote giving parties on the left a greater chance of success.
Yet their celebration may be short lived.
As I wrote after the Eastleigh by-election result, there has now been a seismic shift in British politics. The three main parties, huddled together in what they believe is the centre ground, have removed from the electorate any real choice on the issues which to some voters suddenly matter most.
Today, Mr Arthur’s colleagues on HDC in private are probably shocked saddened and a little disappointed by his decision. In public, they will seek to do what they always do - close ranks, demonstrate unity, and shrug their shoulders as if nothing had happened.
But even at this local level, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to paper over the cracks. Leader Ray Dawe has lost two fellow supporters from the council in recent weeks - for unrelated reasons. The slipping through his fingers of a third - and his deputy at that - will not make life any easier.
In the great scheme of things, Mr Arthur’s defection is merely one small, almost insignificant, step in the political journey of Britain.
But it represents much more. Which is why, in the end, the Conservative party fears that the UKIP One on Horsham District Council may end up the UKIP One of Many.
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