Whiff of betrayal stalks Britain's Conservative Party
Talk of treason cast a shadow over Britain's Conservative party conference this week, where gossip raged over who might be next to defect to the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP).
Delegates debated the menace at a seminar on "Tackling UKIP" while two activists drew attention with T-shirts about UKIP leader Nigel Farage that read: "Nigel. He may have a point".
The latest to switch sides on Wednesday was Conservative donor Arron Banks, an insurance businessman who media reports said could now seek to run for parliament as a UKIP MP.
Conservative leaders brushed off the significance of the announcement, timed just ahead of Prime Minister David Cameron's concluding speech at the conference in Birmingham.
Banks follows Richard Barnes, a former deputy to London Mayor Boris Johnson, who announced his decision on Tuesday.
More painful was the defection at the weekend of Conservative lawmaker Mark Reckless, and in August, of lawmaker Douglas Carswell.
"Reckless by name, reckless by nature", was the bitter joke muttered by party stalwarts, who fear the departure of eurosceptics could spell defeat in the 2015 general election.
The gambling company Ladbrokes has even started taking bets on which MP might be next, prompting furious denials from the odds-on favourites.
One of them, Mark Pritchard, tweeted that, though "tempting", he would not be jumping ship.
Spoof postcards urging activists to go and campaign in the seaside town of Clacton, where Carswell looks likely to be elected as UKIP's first MP at a by-election on October 9, could also be seen dotted around the convention centre.
"Wishing you were here... Clacton for sun, sea and fun," they read.
On the floor of the main hall, senior Conservatives railed against the "betrayal" of UKIP defectors and the thinly-disguised concern is that a trickle of breakaways could turn into a stream.
Johnson joked Monday that UKIP members were the kind of people liable to end up in hospital due to "vacuum cleaner abuse", while party chairman Grant Shapps said Reckless had "lied, lied and lied again".
-'The usual suspects'-
But Gareth Anderson, a councillor in Cheshire, northwest England, warned against the Conservatives sliding to the "nasty bottom" in a bid to match UKIP policies.
"UKIP have sent some people into a panic, probably because they're trying to give themselves a veneer of respectability and beneath that, they're very unpleasant," he said.
Asked how to address the threat, he said: "Don't panic, be honest, tackle them straight and point out where they're ridiculous."
But Geoff Hanson, an activist from Lichfield in central England, urged the Conservatives to follow more traditional policies after a modernisation drive under Cameron.
"I would think for every MP with a 5,000 or less majority there's going to be a problem unless the Conservatives speak out in a better way," he said.
Senior party figures have attempted to steady the ship by insisting that UKIP cannot deliver on its promises to pull Britain out of Europe.
"If you want an in/out referendum when it comes to Europe, the only way you can get it is by getting a Conservative government with me as prime minister," Cameron told broadcaster 5 News on Tuesday.
He has promised to hold a referendum on leaving the European Union in 2017 if he wins the 2015 general election with an outright majority.
But outside the party conference bubble, few voters in Birmingham seemed to heed that message.
Richard Hegarty, an electrician taking a break in a shopping centre nearby, said he was planning to vote UKIP next year because he was fed up with the current political class.
"I'm sick of the lies of the usual suspects," he said. "We should think about building for the future of our children."
Ron Russell, a retired 67-year-old, was also rooting for Farage's party against the Conservatives.
"They want to come down here in the gutter where we are for a couple of years," he said. "I hope Farage gets in."
© 2014 AFP