At one level I can’t get very worked up about Roger Helmer MEP defecting from the Tories to UKIP today. Helmer has long held views on the EU-phobic right of the Conservative Party, in many ways closer to UKIP, so his defection is not a great surprise. Conservative Home has Helmer’s full statement and explanation.
Yet there are enough sub-plots to make the Helmer case worth examining.
Today’s announcement shines the light on the closed list election system in place to elect MEPs. Helmer was elected at the top of the Conservatives’ list in the East Midlands, with Emma McClarkin the other Tory. There was one UKIP MEP in the region – Derek Clark. Helmer’s defection reverses this, giving UKIP 2 and the Tories 1.
The interesting case is what happened when the a politician moved the other way. In May 2011 David Campbell Bannerman defected from UKIP to the Tories, and the first reaction of UKIP was to demand that Campbell Bannerman resign as he had been elected as a UKIP MEP. Of course there is no hint of Helmer resigning or UKIP making a similar claim this time around as the party celebrates a coup today.
But of course Helmer had threatened to resign – back in October last year. His idea then was to stand down personally, while letting the number 3 candidate on the Conservative list, Rupert Matthews, take his place. The problem for the Tories is that Matthews seemed even more out there than Helmer, and Tory HQ grew worried about some of the books he had published, prompting annoyance from Helmer that the succession issue had not been resolved, and hence his decision to delay his resignation. Ultimately unable to get his way – an issue Helmer refers to in his resignation letter – Helmer’s hand was forced, and defection to UKIP was the result.
At one level this is a good result for the Conservatives – they see the back of Helmer, a critic of the more moderate conservatism Cameron has tried to portray, and in 2014 everything is up for grabs again at the EP elections. The Tories have also avoided having to have Rupert Matthews as a MEP, possibly for more than 2 years (given sitting MEPs are prioritised on their lists). At the age of 68, Helmer is himself not going to be the future of UKIP.
Conversely UKIP gains one of the highest profile MEPs (Helmer is one of the few anyone is likely to have heard of), and it shows the danger to the Tories of the traditional, little Englander vote that could increasingly go to UKIP. The DOUBLE challenge posed by the Helmer-Matthews issue, and the direct critique of Sayeeda Warsi in Helmer’s statement, calls into question the Conservatives’ ability to maintain a more diverse pool of candidates for future selections – it is A direct challenge to the more cosmopolitan, more diverse party that Warsi and Cameron have been trying to build. The Helmer case may be the skirmish before greater yet similar battles in future.