Sunday Times, 26th March 2017
Co-bylined with Tim Shipman, Sunday Times Political Editor
For a long time it has been a relationship made in hell but yesterday it ended in a quickie divorce. Douglas Carswell announced that his loveless marriage with Ukip was at an end and Tory MPs revealed that moves are afoot to renew his vows with the Conservative Party.
Ukip’s only MP announced that he was leaving the party to sit as an independent. But in public and private he pointedly refused to rule out returning to the Tory fold in time for the 2020 general election.
Carswell had talks earlier this month with the Conservative chief whip Gavin Williamson, who is understood to support the Clacton MP’s return to the party he abandoned in 2014.
Carswell announced the separation on his website, explaining he had only joined Ukip to help get Britain out of the European Union and it was “job done”.
“I will leave Ukip amicably, cheerfully and in the knowledge that we won,” he wrote.
“I will not be switching parties, nor crossing the floor to the Conservatives, so do not need to call a by-election, as I did when switching from the Conservatives to Ukip.”
But Carswell repeatedly refused to rule out joining the Tories later, with MPs predicting he will return after Brexit in 2019.
“The door is open,” a source familiar with the conversations said. “Never say never. Douglas is not ruling anything out.”
Carswell told friends that Theresa May was doing “a brilliant job” on Brexit and that he now felt closer to the Tory leadership than he did when he was last in the party.
Andrew Bridgen, the MP for North West Leicestershire, said: “We need to be big enough to forgive after a period of penitence. God does love a sinner who has repented and seen the light.”
But Sir Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, has advised May not to let Carswell return on the grounds that his “treachery” should not be rewarded.
Another minister said: “He’s a traitor: he should be shot, not invited to tea.”
No divorce comes without a spurned spouse. Nigel Farage, the former Ukip leader who blames Carswell for failing to secure him a knighthood, and Arron Banks, the donor suspended from the party after clashes with Carswell, insisted the reason for the split was rather different.
They alleged that Carswell had been on the verge of expulsion at a Ukip meeting tomorrow, where party bosses were to discuss his admission after the EU referendum that he had only joined the party to “detoxify” it and “neutralise” Farage, so he was not in charge of the “leave” campaign.
Farage was quick to tweet: “Carswell has jumped before he was pushed. He was never Ukip and sought to undermine us. He should have gone some time ago.”
Farage led calls on Sunday for the MP to declare a by-election. Carswell resisted, saying he had emailed 20,000 constituents yesterday and “all but a handful” of responses were supportive.
He appeared to commit himself to a by-election should he rejoin the Tories, however. Speaking to BBC One’s Sunday Politics, he said: “I’m not submitting myself to the authority, to the whip of a new party. If I was doing so then quite rightly, as I did previously, I would feel obliged to trigger a by-election.”
Banks called on Carswell to stand down now and force a by-election so he could run against him. “Carswell is a rat and it didn’t take a genius to work out that! The poison has been released from Ukip,” Banks said.
But experience was quick to trump hope. Friends of Carswell made it clear that if Banks is let back into the party, two other prominent Ukippers — Patrick O’Flynn and Suzanne Evans — might walk away.
Paul Nuttall, the Ukip leader, whose attempts to achieve unity would tax a UN peace envoy, branded Carswell “an obvious mismatch” with Ukip’s rank-and-file members last night.
He told The Sunday Telegraph: “He has always been and always will be at heart a Brexit-supporting staunch Tory, and with the referendum result sorted he has no reason to stay in a party that is moving into Labour’s turf.”
Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, sought to exploit the marital difficulties. He said Carswell’s willingness to talk to the Tories was proof “Theresa May has adopted the mantle of being Ukip leader”.
Like a marriage guidance counsellor chatting up a vulnerable spouse, Farron urged Tory moderates and remainers to jump the other way, into his own waiting arms.
“Those people are going to need to take a leaf out of Carswell’s book. If you are in a party that has left you, leave it.”