Mark Reckless has been up all night watching Douglas Carswell make history by winning the Clacton byelection and has had next to no sleep. With that job done and his friend installed as Ukip’s first MP, Reckless knows the spotlight is about to turn on him.
As he strides down Rochester High Street, past its cathedral and huge 12th-century castle, this tall, amiable figure is fired up and seems anything but anxious about showing his face in a city centre which epitomises old England at its quaintest.
In recent days Reckless, who became the second Tory MP to defect to Nigel Farage’s party, has been called a liar and a cheat, and much worse, by senior Conservatives, including the party chairman, Grant Shapps. The Tory high command hopes voters in one of their traditional strongholds will shun him as a traitor. But on his progress around the city’s ancient quarters, almost no one does.
An elderly woman sitting in a coffee shop waves enthusiastically as Reckless passes and he darts in to say hello and have a chat. He is quite right to have done what he did and ditch the Tories, she tells him. “The sooner we are out of Europe, the better for everyone. He is right,” she says.
Reckless is barely into his stride again when pensioner Richard Burrows stops him in his tracks and shakes his hand. He says he received a phone call the other day from someone he suspected was connected to the Tory party, who asked if he knew Reckless had missed an important Commons vote because he had been drinking in a bar in the Palace of Westminster.
Burrows knows Reckless well, likes him and was not impressed by the attempt to smear his MP. “It was cleverly done, trying to plant an idea in my mind,” he says. “It sounded like they were a bit desperate. I will be voting for Mark again.”
There is the odd sign of discontent and an occasional volley of abuse. “Fuck Ukip!” shout a couple of young men as they speed by in a van. On the day after Reckless defected, a dozen or so Tory activists hurled abuse at him. Fearing more such insults, he moved his wife and young children out of the Rochester and Strood constituency, worried that they, too, could become targets.
However, two weeks on and he is, in the main, being treated with great civility. “The enthusiasm I am getting has been incomparably greater than I ever got as a Conservative,” he says. “People will come out of their houses and cross the road and voice their support. The enthusiasm that Ukip is engendering, including among sections of the electorate who have rarely if ever voted, is extraordinary.”
To those who question his honour, he has a ready answer. “I point out that I am having a byelection … I am standing down to give them the choice of whether they want me to continue under my new colours.”
As we head up past the cathedral he bumps into a lawyer friend, Philip Talboys, and they exchange pleasantries. “I have always voted Tory, rather boringly,” says Talboys, who suggests he will find it difficult to break the habit. “How I will vote this time is between me and the ballot box,” he says, “but I wish Mark all the best.” Then a former nurse, Ruth Thompson, collars Reckless and asks him about Europe and immigration. She is polite but very worried about immigration and says she is thinking about voting Ukip. “My husband would kill me. It will probably end in divorce.”
The old part of Rochester could form the setting for a Joanna Trollope novel, all cloisters, ancient battlements and leaning Tudor buildings, where church people and private school teachers amble quietly by. The constituency is not all like this. Strood, on the other side of the river Medway, is less serene and prosperous, and some residential wards in Rochester’s outskirts are pretty deprived. But this is Tory England at its most content. In 2010 Reckless won the seat for the Conservatives with a majority of just under 10,000 over Labour. “I think if we win here we will show that we can win almost anywhere across the country and we will break up that cosy cartel at Westminster,” he says.
The more dilapidated coastal resort of Clacton, where Carswell took Tory voters with him to win by a mile on Thursday night, was seen as likely Ukip territory. But the Conservatives believe they have a far better chance of holding on to more upmarket Rochester and Strood. Reckless, though, thinks otherwise and is pretty confident that he can follow Carswell’s win. If he does, the sky is then the limit for Ukip, he says.
A date has yet to be set for the byelection. But the once ragbag army of Ukip is already moving in in force – with plenty of money. A week or so ago, the party took over a smart 16th-century building in the high street, which is already piled high with boxes of Reckless propaganda, ready for distribution. On Saturday Carswell and Farage joined their candidate to officially open the new HQ.
Reckless, a lawyer with an intense manner but the ability to charm, does not know whether other Tory MPs will follow him and Carswell. “I don’t know. It is such an individual decision. Some will see the Clacton result; others may wait to see how I do, perhaps seeing this as a more representative constituency.”
Whether they do or don’t, his optimism about the party’s chances at the general election will strike yet more fear into the minds of the Tories. He believes Ukip can win at least 12 Westminster seats next May. “I think there is a realistic chance of that now,” he says, as he shakes more hands and renews more acquaintances on the high street.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010