All political careers end in failure, as Enoch Powell remarked, except on those rare occasions when they are cut off in their prime. Just occasionally, though, a case emerges whose very exceptionalism confirms the general truth of Powell’s dictum. The career of Douglas Carswell, who has announced he will not contest his Clacton constituency at the forthcoming election, is one such exception.
By any reasonable measure, Carswell has been one of the most influential backbenchers in recent memory. Possibly, even, the most influential of all. This is quite an achievement for a man who, until recently, most voters had never heard of and whose brand of libertarianism has never enjoyed anything other than niche support. Then again, as a revolutionary slayer of sacred cows, horses, pigs and every other kind of domesticated animal, Carswell was never a man who really belonged in any party. He is that rarity: an actual radical who actually achieved something significant.
If it’s a stretch to argue that Carswell is the man who made Brexit possible, it remains the case that he played a key role in delivering it. Just occasionally, a daring political gamble pays-off and such, I think, must be history’s verdict on Carswell’s decision to leave the Conservatives and join Ukip. At the time he did so, it seemed a quixotic move even by Carswell’s own high standards for chasing lost causes.
It turned out to be a masterstroke, a rare example of a genuine false flag operation that, in turn, helped change the course of British political history. Carswell’s defection to Ukip made him a cuckoo in the Kipper nest. As Tim Shipman’s masterly account of the Brexit wars, “All Out War”, makes clear, Carswell’s defection was predicated on the realisation that, if Nigel Farage were to lead the push for Brexit, then Brexit would be doomed. “We wanted to put men in their [Ukip’s] trench, and to do that, we had to go over the top.” Infiltrating Ukip by stealth would help “decontaminate the brand”. Farage, cockahoop at capturing Tory defectors, never saw it coming.
Detoxifying Ukip meant Carswell could talk about welcoming immigration and jettisoning Ukip’s “angry nativism”. Even political correctness was actually often just “straightforward good manners”. If Ukip was the angry face of Brexit, polite society could never be persuaded to give Brexit a fair hearing; Carswell’s mission was to change that. “If it became a choice between being rude about Romanian immigrants versus the economy, we could lose 60-40.”
Even so, Carswell’s work was not done. There remained the risk that Leave.EU, Farage’s Brexit campaign group backed by Arron Banks, might win the race to be designated the official pro-Brexit campaign organisation. That would have made Farage the point man for Brexit rather than a guerrilla auxiliary who could be relied on stir up the easily-stirred but needed to be kept away from a middle-Britain instinctively suspicious of his rhetoric and Toad-of-Toad-Hall vulgarity.
Carswell’s decision to ally himself with the Vote Leave organisation run by Matthew Elliot and Dominic Cummings did not in itself guarantee that Vote Leave would become the official Leave campaign but it played a significant part in winning that designation by demonstrating that Vote Leave enjoyed a semblance of cross-party support. This was so even if it was by now clear that Carswell was, in reality, just a KINO: a Kipper In Name Only.
Many other stars had to align to make Brexit a feasible proposition but keeping Farage and Banks in the background – at least to the extent that was possible – was one essential part of the Brexit constellation. That might have happened without Carswell; it was certainly helped to happen by his actions.
Job done, there was nothing inglorious about Carswell’s decision to leave a party he had never really joined in spirit anyway. Enthusiasts for internecine political drama will miss the Carswell-Farage drama and an election that sorely needs some light relief could have done with the spectacle of Carswell vs Banks in Clacton. But his decision to stand down reflects the manner in which he has achieved all he needed to achieve.
It is also a recognition that, despite being an independent conservative, there was little more Carswell could hope to achieve. His libertarian radicalism is out-of-step with Theresa May’s provincial maternalism. Carswell is not a natural team-player.
That should be understood as a compliment, not a criticism in a parliament that could usefully benefit from more individuals and fewer dutiful MPs whose chief purpose in life lies in sucking up to the government in the hope of one day achieving modest personal advancement.
Carswell’s departure sees one of Westminster’s most interesting, if also often most infuriating, MPs depart the stage. Parliament will be a duller place for his absence and that’s something to be regretted regardless of whether or not you happen to agree with him on any given issue.
His departure, like those of Gisela Stuart and George Osborne and others, leaves a diminished parliament. There is no need to agree with parliamentarians to recognise the manner in which their presence enhances the House of Commons. A Carswell of independent, if eccentric mind, is worth a dozen plodding backbenchers.
But, Brexit achieved – for better or for worse – what fresh worlds were left for Carswell to conquer? Nothing, at any rate, which could top Brexit, the achievement of a lifetime. As political endings go, this one has the sense of success. And it is not often that can be said.