How disaster struck Cameron out of clear blue autumn skies

It was all stacking up so well for the Conservatives as final preparations were made for their last party conference before the general election in May.

Apart from events in the Middle East, which cast a dark cloud, the domestic political weather appeared to be set reasonably fair.

Tory delegates heading to Birmingham could reflect with some pride that the economy was on the mend. Employment data was improving by the month, faster even than the most optimistic among them had dared to hope. The Tory-led coalition had toughed out four years of austerity and the green shoots of recovery seemed to be sprouting up.

Then there was the gift delivered on a plate by Labour leader Ed Miliband at last week's Labour conference in Manchester. Miliband's error in forgetting to mention the deficit in his 66-minute noteless conference speech was precious Tory ammunition indeed. "It has put a spring our step, that is for sure," said a senior party figure.

But that was before the Conservative's own day of disaster unfolded, one which saw the political story switch back to crisis, or crises, in the Conservative party and away from Labour.

It is only weeks since Douglas Carswell, the former Tory MP for Clacton, announced he was leaving David Cameron's party to join Ukip. He said at the time that he did not believe the Conservatives under the current prime minister were serious about changing the EU. In a dramatic resignation statement he announced he would fight a byelection as a Ukip candidate. The sense of panic that gripped the Tories then was profound.

But the ship had since steadied. More good economic news emerged on jobs, and Cameron's composure over the terror threat posed by Isis – coupled with Miliband's woes – had restored some calm. The next real difficulty, strategists believed, would come with the byelection in Clacton on 9 October, which it is expected Carswell will win for Ukip. Even Nigel Farage said he did not expect further Tory defections before then.

The Tory party rarely remains a steady ship for long, however. And Mark Reckless single-handedly wrecked its Birmingham party. His decision to follow Carswell by jumping over to Ukip means the Conservatives now face two byelections which they could well lose to Farage's outfit. Two Ukip wins could then tempt more to follow suit, just at a time when the Conservative party is supposed to be drawing up its manifesto for a second term in power, and focusing on the attack on Labour. Now its task is complicated by what will be inevitable pressure to tack towards the right in order to neutralise the Ukip threat, rather than focus on middle-ground voters.

Farage was loving it. Asked about other possible defections, he replied: "We have these conversations. Of course, there are Conservatives I am talking to but there are Labour people too. There are Labour people who are deeply frustrated with Ed Miliband's leadership."

Reckless said he had endured a number of sleepless nights over the decision, telling the conference he had been a Conservative "as long as I can remember". But he told Ukip activists that too many election pledges had been broken during the course of the parliament. "People feel ignored, taken for granted, overtaxed, over-regulated, ripped off and lied to," he said. Dismissing the prime minister's promise of an in-out referendum on membership of the European Union, he voiced the view of many in his former party: "I'm afraid I have reluctantly reached the view that he is doing so purely as a device," he said. "He has already preordained his intended outcome, namely continued membership of the EU on something very close to the present terms. Everything else is for show.

"What the prime minister has in mind, and it's not even a secret at Westminster, is modelled on what Harold Wilson did in 1975 – a bogus renegotiation followed by a loaded referendum."

As if this were not enough torture for loyal Tories, then came the news that Brooks Newmark, a wealthy father of five who campaigns for more women to become involved in politics, had quit his job as minister for civil society having been caught in a classic Tory sex entrapment sting. To cut a long story short, he had posted explicit pictures of himself on the internet after being duped by female reporters posing as users of a social networking site.

Newmark, who studied at Harvard and Oxford, is on the board of the Harvard Alumni Association and co-founded Women2Win, which encourages women into politics and public service. He has written several papers on government debt, including Simply Red: the True State of the Public Finances (2006) and The Price of Irresponsibility (2008).

The resignation had echoes of the disaster that was John Major's "back to basics" policy, which saw ministers and Tory MPs falling like ninepins as their private lives were exposed. Suddenly the Conservatives are embroiled in another deep and this time potentially existential crisis over Europe, as well as sleaze.

To make it even worse, the sleaze concerned a minister who was supposed to be in charge of Cameron's pet project, the "big society". A few days ago it was the Tories who couldn't believe their luck. This weekend it could well be Labour.

Powered by article was written by Toby Helm, political editor, for The Observer on Sunday 28th September 2014 00.05 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010