Pollsters are making UKIP look like a sure fire bet to win on Thursday. A survey last week commissioned by the Conservative Party donor, Lord Ashcroft, gave Nigel Farage’s party a 12 point lead ahead of the Tories with 44% of the vote. Labour was third with just 17%, while the Liberal Democrats lagged well behind on just 2%. Monday’s Telegraph reported that the anti-immigration, anti-EU party was forecasting a 15 point lead in Rochester; and the Observer quoted an anonymous Conservative cabinet source as saying that the Tories had admitted defeat, and were aiming to keep the margin of victory to below ten points.
The bookmakers Coral, meanwhile, has already started paying out for a UKIP win on 20 November. And even though Prime Minister David Cameron said he would “throw the kitchen sink” at defending the seat, urging members of his party to go down to Kent and campaign for the Conservatives, victory for defector Mark Reckless looks likely.
Victory would be no mean feat for Mr Reckless. Unlike the constituency of Clacton, where the former Conservative MP Douglas Carswell defected and retained his seat with a majority of over 12,000 votes, Rochester is not UKIP heartland. Mr Reckless won the seat at the 2010 general election with a majority of over 10,000; but it was previously held by Labour. People in Rochester are better qualified than the average Brit, only 15 per cent are over 65 and it has a substantial ethnic minority population. If UKIP win with a substantial margin over the Tories, this will be a benchmark win for Mr Farage and his party.
However, referring to his poll last week, Lord Ashcroft said that although a UKIP victory was likely, they would expect to fight a battle to retain the seat at Rochester when the general election rolls around in May. “Of those naming a party, 36 per cent of Rochester voters said they would probably vote Conservative at the general election, 35 per cent UKIP and 21 per cent Labour,” said Ashcroft. Matthew Whiting, a lecturer in British and comparative politics at the University of Kent, agrees; “They wouldn’t be devastated to lose the seat at this point, given that what happens in a by-election is not always a good predictor of what is going to happen at a general election,” he said. “People are more likely to vote for smaller, protest-based parties at by-elections. Just because this seat goes to UKIP on Thursday, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t return to the Conservatives in May.”
In the event of a substantial victory for UKIP on Thursday, the party believes that it can trigger more defections among Conservative backbenchers in the south-east of England, most notably in Kent and Essex. British media reports are suggesting that the Basildon and Billericay MP, John Baron, is next in line to follow in Mr Reckless and Mr Carswell’s footsteps. Whiting added that, although this may well be true, UKIP has support nationwide. “Generally, London and the south-east have slightly more right-of-centre preferences than the rest of the UK. But we would have to look at [the recent by-election in] Hayward and Middleton, which is up in Manchester, and [we] also saw a big boost in support for UKIP,” he said. “The big thing is that the UKIP vote share tends to be dispersed and spread throughout the whole of the country, apart from in one or two key constituencies, which means they’re having a lot of trouble converting those votes into actual seats. But where they would get seats would be around Essex and Kent.”
Whiting suggested that many Conservative backbenchers are just threatening to defect in order to provoke a response from the party leadership. However, if Mr Reckless succeeds in pulling off a convincing victory in the Rochester and Strood constituency, which is very much middle-England and has a mixed demographic, more Tory MPs may want to jump on the UKIP bandwagon.