British Prime Minister David Cameron suffered a setback on Thursday when one of his Conservative lawmakers unexpectedly defected to the anti-EU U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), saying he doubted Mr. Cameron’s desire to reform the European Union.
The defection of Douglas Carswell comes eight months before a national election in which UKIP threatens Mr. Cameron’s re-election chances. UKIP, which wants Britain to leave the EU, won May’s European elections in Britain after taking votes from the Conservatives.
Mr. Carswell, 43, said he was standing down as a Conservative member of parliament with immediate effect because he had lost faith in Mr. Cameron’s promises to try to renegotiate Britain’s EU ties if he wins power again next year.
Mr. Cameron has said he would hold a referendum in 2017 on whether to stay in or get out of the EU after the renegotiation, if it happens.
“David Cameron has made up his mind. He wants to stay in,” Mr. Carswell told a news conference. “It’s all about positioning for the election. If I believed they were sincere about real change, I wouldn’t be here. I don’t believe that they’re serious.”
Though a blow, Conservative strategists regard any fallout from the defection of Mr. Carswell, a politician whose colleagues have long regarded him as a maverick, as manageable. But other, similar defections could begin to pose a serious problem.
UKIP wants an immediate British EU withdrawal and an end to what it calls an “open door” immigration policy. It has no seats in the British parliament but holds 24 of the country’s 73 seats in the European Parliament.
Mr. Cameron said Mr. Carswell’s defection was unfortunate, stressing his was the only party able to deliver an EU membership vote.
“I think it’s deeply regrettable, counter-productive and self-defeating,” Mr. Cameron told BBC TV, saying Mr. Carswell favoured Britain’s leaving the EU regardless of his planned renegotiation.
Mr. Carswell’s announcement threatens to unsettle the Eurosceptic wing of Mr. Cameron’s party, estimated to account for around a third of his 304 members of parliament, before next year’s national election and could prompt other defections.
Tim Bale, a professor at London’s Queen Mary University and author of a history on the Conservative party, said there was a risk Mr. Carswell’s decision could ignite “a kind of bubbling semi civil war” between now and the next election.
“That will give voters the idea that this isn’t a party that is interested in them and that it is more interested in arguing about Europe – it is divided,” Prof. Bale said in a phone interview.
Internal Conservative party ructions over Europe contributed to the political undoing of the last two Conservative prime ministers, John Major and Margaret Thatcher.
Michael Dugher, a lawmaker from the opposition Labour party, which is ahead in opinion polls before next year’s national election, said Mr. Carswell’s defection was “a hammer blow” to Mr. Cameron.
“Confidence in David Cameron is collapsing inside a Conservative party which is divided and running scared of UKIP,” Mr. Dugher said in a statement.
Nigel Farage, UKIP’s leader, said he hoped Mr. Carswell’s decision, which he praised as “noble,” would embolden other members of parliament to switch sides.
“I don’t think it’s any great secret that there are now a number of members of parliament sitting on the Conservative benches, and indeed now some sitting on the Labour benches, who hold UKIP’s views very strongly,” he said. “It will be an encouragement to others.”
Prof. Bale said enough further defections could undermine Mr. Cameron’s chances in next year’s election, given how close it is expected to be.
“It is a big deal if lots of people begin to jump ship, because it will begin to look like it is a sinking ship,” he said.
A YouGov poll on Thursday put Conservative support at 34 per cent, just behind Labour’s 35 per cent. UKIP was on 14 per cent.
The defection gives Mr. Cameron, who is due to appear in Scotland later on Thursday, a short-term political problem.
His party now faces an election battle in the coming months for Mr. Carswell’s parliamentary seat in Clacton, in southern England. Matthew Goodwin, an academic at the University of Nottingham, said UKIP was likely to win that vote.
“The demographics in Clacton are ideal for UKIP,” he told BBC radio. “This is a struggling, coastal seat, lots of older, white voters, few minority voters – it’s classic ‘left-behind’ territory,” he said.
Mr. Carswell, who comfortably took the seat in 2010 with a majority of more than 12,000 votes, said he would try to win it again, this time to represent UKIP.
Mr. Carswell accused Mr. Cameron and his party of being filled with self-interested cliques who were more interested in holding power rather than effecting real change.
“Ultimately, they’re more comfortable being a small clique in Downing Street, sitting on a sofa,” he said, referring to the street where Mr. Cameron’s office is located.
“For them politics is about people like them, it’s a game between different cliques to get to sit on the sofa.”
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