The Conservatives are launching a blitz campaign to save their seat in Rochester after Mark Reckless, the sitting MP, defected from the Tories to Ukip over the weekend.
David Cameron has decided to try to turn the crisis caused by Mr Reckless’s defection into an opportunity to galvanise Tory support in an attempt to retain the seat and deter other Conservatives from following suit.
The prime minister has toured fringe events at the Tory conference in Birmingham, rallying his activists to fight hard in the Kent seat which Mr Reckless won for the party in 2010 with a 10,000 majority.
Mr Cameron made a surprise appearance at a party organised by ConservativeHome, the grassroots website, on Sunday evening. He told delegates: “I know how Conservatives in Strood and Rochester will be feeling tonight. They will be saying, ‘I worked my socks off, I’ve banged on those doors, I’ve stuffed those envelopes. I’ve worked my heart out to get that man elected and yet this is how I’m repaid.’”
The prime minister added: “I don’t care whether you’re from the north, the south, the east or the west; from London, from Birmingham, from Manchester – I say at this conference we make this vow: we got to Rochester and we will win that seat back for the Conservatives.”
His words mark the beginning of a concerted Tory effort to halt Ukip’s momentum by retaining the seat. The Conservatives are planning to delay holding a by-election in Rochester until November, giving activists several weeks to mount a campaign they believe has a good chance of success. They will begin the formal process of choosing a candidate next Tuesday.
The fight for Rochester is likely to be intense, with Ukip equally convinced it is heading for victory. The party handed Mr Reckless private polling that showed it was likely to win the seat in 2015 in an effort to persuade him to defect. Bookmakers make Ukip clear favourites to win.
It is also possible that neither party will win. Labour’s Bob Marshall-Andrews represented the area from 1997 until 2010, beating Mr Reckless twice along the way, and a split in the rightwing vote could let the opposition party back in.
Senior Conservatives are particularly worried about persistent rumours that other Tories will also defect: people close to Nigel Farage claim another MP is lined up to join their party the day after the Clacton by-election.
Whips are calling hardline eurosceptics to check their intentions. One minister on Sunday criticised the whipping operation for not having enough intelligence on the mood of the restive eurosceptics.
One minister in Birmingham joked darkly: “How many more could defect? 10 to 20? We don’t know.”
Winning Rochester would be an ideal way to prevent any more MPs leaving the party, say Conservative officials.
The approach differs from that taken in Clacton, the Essex seat held by Douglas Carswell, who has also defected to Ukip. Senior Tories believe they are likely to lose that seat, which Mr Carswell has held since 2005 and in which he has cultivated a significant personal support base.
According to analysis by the academics Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, who have researched Ukip’s support, Clacton is the most favourable for the anti-European party in terms of its demographic make-up. Rochester and Strood is the 271st.
Mr Goodwin said: “Rochester does not have the strong concentration of economically marginal, working class voters that you see in Clacton. Added to that, Mark Reckless does not command the same level of local loyalty that someone like Douglas Carswell does.
“This is the biggest gamble Nigel Farage has made yet.”
And while Mr Carswell elicited some sympathy for his decision, Mr Reckless’s move has garnered little besides anger.
Grant Shapps, Tories’ Welwyn Hatfield representative, told the conference on Sunday: “He lied and lied and lied again. We have been betrayed.”
Other Tory MPs variously described their former colleague as a “loner”, an “egotist” and “shameless”. “It’s all about him – he always had a total lack of team spirit,” said one.
Liam Fox, the Conservative former defence secretary, was even more outspoken. “I spoke at Mark Reckless’s fundraising dinner in his constituency a few weeks ago. He has looked his colleagues in the eye and lied on a daily basis. His behaviour is loathsome.”
Mr Fox added: “I am not normally in favour of rising unemployment, but in his case I will make an exception.”