Welcome to Clacton-on-Sea, a sleepy town on the Essex coast and the unlikely battleground for Ukip’s newest parliamentary candidate.
Across the road from the brick train station is the headquarters of Douglas Carswell, a defector from the Tories and sure-fire bet to become the Eurosceptic party’s first man into Westminster at the next election. A bright purple Ukip taxi is parked outside the building, while campaigners swarm around the 43-year-old as he arrives to open his new campaign office, flanked by his wife Clementine.
A senior Ukip official introduces him to the crowd, joking to knowing laughter: “This by-election is highly unusual as we are starting as the favourites.” With Carswell on board, Ukip members, once derided as “gadflies” and “cranks”, have now got a spring in their step.
Carswell at the opening of his new Clacton office
Carswell, whose defection last month surprised many, can’t hide his glee at the turnout as he officially opens his new HQ as a Ukip candidate. If he is elected, Ukip will have finally broken through into the mainstream, and the campaigners know it. His office is crammed full of supporters, leaflets are piled high and purple banners crown the outside – bearing his name proudly.
The same can’t be sad for the local Tory HQ down the road, which now has a sad, empty space on its sign where his Carswell’s name used to be, highlighted as the town’s Member of Parliament. His name was displayed until very recently – an indication of how caught out the Tory association were by his move.
Clacton Conservatives are hoping to quickly fill this space left by Carswell
“We know it will be a tough fight and an uphill struggle, so we’re doing what we can,” a Conservative campaigner admits to HuffPostUK.
Carswell’s defection to Ukip more than shook up local politics, with around 150 Tory members reportedly feeling inspired to do the same. HuffPostUK finds out that Carswell’s election agent, Chris, who used to work for him and a number of Tory MPs, followed his lead, as did Jake, a local lad who used to do work experience in his Parliamentary office.
Carswell poses with a Ukip supporter outside the party’s Clacton HQ
Asked how he has dealt with the Tory critics to his move, the sanguine Carswell quotes Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” ("If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs...").
The polls so far suggest Carswell is on track to be re-elected by a decisive 44% lead, with one for the Mail on Sunday suggesting that 64% of Clacton voters would come out to back him - a sign of his personal popularity and the strength of the Ukip brand.
Clacton is estimated to be the most Ukip-friendly city in Britain, as experts say its voters are "older, less well educated and insecure".
Carswell did his best to manage expectations on Saturday. “Let’s not make the mistake of thinking we know what the result is going to be. Complacency is our enemy,” he warned his supporters. “The result will be closer than people think.”
But judging from how Carswell was received when he toured Clacton, he looks unlikely to have to worry about a knife-edge result. As he spoke outside his office, drivers going past regularly tooted their horns and stuck their thumbs out at him. One driver had a Union Jack flag to hand, which she thrust out of the window to wave excitedly as she passed.
The hopeful Ukip MP, wise to his former Conservative colleagues’ campaign style, revealed to his supporters that they had been found asking Clacton locals “what they thought of the local tube service”. The nearest London Underground stop is 50 miles away from the area, leading Carswell to conclude: “I think that tells you what you need to know”.
The Tories admit they had carried out such a survey when asked by HuffPostUK, but a campaigner says: "It was a legitimate question. As Douglas would know, many Clacton residents commute to London."
Being "local" is a major appeal in this by-election. Ukip campaigners talk admiringly of Carswell’s record as Clacton's MP, while one voter tells him: "You're a local lad, I like you." The Tories are trying to be just as local, with plans to choose their candidate to take on Carswell via an open primary, an idea he has championed that allows local people to choose the final candidate rather than party members.
The material handed out by the Tories, a slickly-produced “Clacton and Frinton Campaigner” leaflet that is made to look like a newspaper, emphasises what they are doing for “hard working taxpayers” and how “only the Conservatives will guarantee an In/Out referendum”.
Carswell’s agent, however, chuckles knowingly when he sees the election material. “It’s so London-centric, I used to see things like this produced in previous by-elections.”
There was speculation that London Mayor Boris Johnson could throw his hat in as a candidate to take on Carswell, until he dismissed the "eccentric idea", which was ironic given Ukip's criticism of the Tories' "London-centric" operation.
HuffPostUK accompanies Carswell as he goes on a walk around Clacton with his wife, in a journey that took much longer than expected as he keeps being stopped by local residents.
Locals continuously come up to him to pledge their support in the coming by-election, others bring up letters they have sent him, which he remembers, resulting in impromptu advice sessions on the street. Meanwhile, drivers passing by continue to honk their horns, with Carswell frequently turning to thank them for their support, quite often calling after them by name.
The Ukip parliamentary hopeful is in a chirpy mood, showing HuffPostUK his election “newsletter” that details how local people’s income has flat-lined while spending on things like overseas aid has soared.
“People around here aren’t seeing the recovery. Ministers are being complacent and forgetting about them.” he says. “Average incomes have hardly grown in Clacton in six years, while small cliques in London are making decisions without listening to what people want.”
As he tours Clacton talking to voters, Carswell is not afraid to stick the knife into his former party and use their slogans against them. Pointing to a picture of David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg on his election leaflet, Carswell tells a voter: “See these three? They’re all in it together!”
Carswell, who was first elected MP for the area in 2005, gets a reception from locals that many politicians would kill for. One voter came up to him just to tell him: “You’re a smashing guy.”
Another voter comes up to him to offload her frustration with “the main three parties” and how they “don’t listen to us”. Even when Carswell disagrees with someone, he is firm but fair, reassuring them: “Don’t get angry, get change”.
At another time, he tells a voter: “Clement Attlee wasn’t my sort of politician, but he knew where he stood. We need more of that kind of leadership these days.”
Carswell recalls one thorny encounter with a voter: “I had a man in the street come up to me who said some things I disagreed with about the NHS. Let’s never, ever make the mistake of blaming problems in this country on immigration. It’s not in a mess because of that, it’s in a mess because of politicians in London.”
The Ukip hopeful's defence of immigration is unsurprising given the effect immigrants seem to have had in his community, with his office right next door to a kebab joint and a Caribbean food outlet.
Carswell's office sits next to a kebab house
Despite warning against blaming immigration for Britain’s ills, Carswell later sympathises with another voter about how the coalition “can’t control our borders”. Carswell manages to talk to voters like a normal human being, knowing many of them by name and when he last saw them.
What will Carswell do in Ukip? The former Tory MP has recently attacked "intolerable" remarks made by senior Ukip members about women, however he dodges HuffPostUK's invitation to sketch out more of what he thinks about his new colleagues: "I've just joined Ukip, Ukip hasn't just joined me...!"
Carswell fully expects to be busy on the campaign trail as the Clacton by-election on 9 October draws near, and he may be Ukip’s first directly elected MP. He says that he is making sure to get his sleep, going to bed at around 10.
Is his work ethic any different from his leader, Nigel Farage? Carswell quips: “The one major difference between Nigel and me is that after work, he goes to the pub, but I prefer to go for a McFlurry.”
After HuffPostUK admits to most recently visiting Burger King, Carswell is off: “They can never do the chips quite right.” He explains he found a renewed appreciation of McDonalds after the birth of his daughter. Carswell even kicked off his campaign as a Ukip candidate with Farage outside a McDonalds in Clacton. As he spoke about his appreciation for the fast food chain, he broke off to discuss with a local the concerns they raised with him about animal welfare.
This in itself sums up Carswell’s appeal as his authenticity cuts through. He seems genuinely delighted by every voter coming up to pledge their support, or driver that hoots their horn, and thanks every one of his campaigners for coming out to help.
As we approach his new HQ, a senior Tory politician drives by and gives Carswell the thumbs up, who responds with a laugh and shouts back jokingly: “I won’t tell anyone!”.
If they want to seriously take on Carswell, the Tories will definitely have a fight on their hands.