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Douglas Carswell Is Wrong to Play Political Theatre at a Time of Global Crisis

01/09/2014 12:37 BST | Updated 30/10/2014 09:59 GMT

Hundreds of column inches have already been written about Douglas Carswell's defection to UKIP, and I was initially reluctant to add to them. Yet there is an overlooked aspect of this whole saga that particularly jars with me, leaving me unable to stay silent, and it is this: how could a man so widely praised for his "principles" play party political games and indulge in distracting political theatre at a time when we face some of the biggest global threats since the Cold War?

Like many, as a Conservative I initially took the view that while I profoundly disagree with his decision, I respected his courage in not simply switching sides, but instead deciding to put his decision to the people in a by-election. This may be the first time anyone has done this since Dick Taverne took a similar step in Lincoln 41 years ago, in a prelude to the formation of the SDP.

Like many, some of the comments he made in his resignation statement resonated with me, particularly around the theme of principle and passion versus spin and ambition. Among those in politics whom I respect most are people of principle and passion on all sides: David Alton, Ann Widdecombe, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Benn. Those in the current Conservative Party who most interest me are those engaged with ideas: notably Michael Gove, Oliver Letwin, David Willetts. It is concerning that all three have been shuffled off from the frontlines. It is disappointing that Ann Widdecombe has never been given the peerage she deserves. I would have liked to see Liam Fox, whose views on freedom and human rights in foreign policy I share, brought back. The loss of people such as Lady Thatcher and Tony Benn leaves politics the poorer. The shortage of people of principle in politics today, the abundance of career politicians, the pre-eminence of spin, the predominance of focus on short-term electoral concerns over long-term leadership, in all the major parties, are all aspects of our political system which need challenging.

However, like most Conservatives, even if there are aspects of Carswell's thinking with which I might agree (though some with which I don't), I am bewildered by the conclusion he has come to. I simply cannot see how it benefits anyone except UKIP, and I fail to see why that is a good thing.

I could never join UKIP. I am a Euro-realist or a moderate sceptic, critical of the way the European Union functions, strongly opposed to political union, but equally keen to see us co-operate and engage with our European neighbours on issues where it is in our interests to do so. I would like to see an EU that is radically reformed and much more flexible, a body of co-operating nation states rather than an un-elected bureaucracy regulating us all. I am equally opposed to the extreme Europhiliacs as I am to the extreme anti-Europeans. I am with the Prime Minister in this.

Like many of us, I also find UKIP distasteful. As far as I can see, Nigel Farage is its only appealing figure. His jovial, common sense manner is dangerously persuasive, until one hears his remarks about Romanian neighbours. But a party that includes the likes of Godfrey Bloom and Janice Atkinson is not one I could ever join. A party that has as an MEP a woman who makes rude finger gestures to the cameras and dismisses the Thai wife of one of her own party's supporters as a "ting tong from somewhere" is not one that appeals to me. Thailand is hardly an obscure far away country of which we know little these days, and only the most parochial could make such a remark. Whether she was intentionally racist or just crassly ignorant is unclear, but either way I find it difficult to see what an intelligent, thoughtful man like Carswell sees in a party of Janice Atkinsons.

But all that said, those are not the main reasons I find Carswell's decision so wrong. The main reason is this: at a time when a genocide is unfolding in Iraq, when Britain faces the greatest terrorist threat ever, when the US President admits he has no strategy, when Britain itself is exporting jihadis, when Israel and Palestine continue to face their biggest crisis in years, and at the same time Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukraine, it is reckless, self-indulgent and dangerous to distract the Prime Minister's attention from these profound and urgent challenges to our safety and the stability of the world, by an entirely unnecessary and counter-productive by-election - particularly when it is that same Prime Minister who has already promised a referendum on EU membership if he wins the next General Election.

Because that is the effect of Carswell's decision. The Prime Minister will inevitably be forced to focus on saving votes in Clacton when he should be devoting his attention to saving lives in Iraq. He will have to spend time fighting UKIP and trying to keep his own party together, when he should be concentrating on fighting jihadism and trying to protect our country and keep others together. And when we have a US President who has gone AWOL on the golf course, the world desperately needs leadership - and David Cameron could help provide that. Of course I am not suggesting that the Prime Minister cannot multi-task - that is inherently the nature of the job of Prime Minister, and I am sure he will - but inevitably Clacton will detract and distract from other, graver issues.

Carswell has been praised for his courage and principle. Perhaps, if these were ordinary times, there could be room for such reckless "courage" - though I agree with Matthew Parris that anyone who describes himself as "honourable" three times in 35 seconds is questionable. And certainly anyone who indulges in an entirely unnecessary piece of political gamesmanship at a time of global crisis is of dubious honour and certainly surprisingly poor judgment.