ROCHESTER (AFP) – Britain s anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) was set to claim its second seat in parliament, as votes were counted early Friday in the town of Rochester, foreshadowing a possible political upheaval at next year s general election.
The by-election in southeast England on Thursday was called after MP Mark Reckless defected in September from Prime Minister David Cameron s Conservative Party to UKIP, which wants strict quotas on immigration.
Speculation over further defections to UKIP swirled after Reckless suggested two more Conservative lawmakers could switch, piling pressure on Cameron six months from the May general election.
Furious campaigning by the Conservatives to keep the once-safe Rochester and Strood seat failed to steal back momentum, and experts portrayed the election as a historic moment in British politics if surveys indicating a UKIP win are borne out.
As election officials piled ballots on tables to be counted, UKIP leader Nigel Farage said he was confident of a win, with results due in the early hours of Friday.
“I feel our vote is solid. I think we are going to win but I think it s maybe closer than people think,” Farage said.
“If we win this, looking forward to next year s general election, all bets are off and the whole thing is up in the air.”
Cameron vowed to “throw everything” at the battle, and a defeat would deal a blow to his reputation after he spearheaded the campaign, with the potential to turn into a full-blown crisis if the result triggers further defections.
The by-election comes a month after the Conservatives lost a previously safe seat of Clacton to another defector, Douglas Carswell, hading UKIP its first ever seat in the national parliament.
The prime minister has already promised a referendum on Britain s EU membership if his party wins next year s general election and has taken a harder stance on immigration in a bid to stem the flow.
– UKIP living in the past –
Experts said the vote could prove a key moment in the history of British politics.
“UKIP was not supposed to win this by-election,” explained Matthew Goodwin, politics professor at Nottingham University.
Rochester would be a far more serious blow to the Conservatives than Clacton, “filled with the types of voters who have fuelled UKIP s rise since 2010 — older, white, working-class and struggling voters who have few qualifications,” Goodwin explained.
Reckless won 49 percent of the vote in Rochester in 2010 when he ran as a Conservative.
The growing support for UKIP is likely to make it harder for either the centre-right Conservative party or the centre-left Labour party to win an outright majority in what is set to be a closely-fought election in May.
In a sign of anger at both the main political parties, seen as out of touch by many voters, the by-election also caused embarrassment for the Labour party, which was expected to be out of the spotlight.
Labour lawmaker Emily Thornberry was forced to resign from the shadow cabinet after posting a Tweet seen as condescending towards working-class voters, showing a house festooned with English flags and the caption “Image from #Rochester”.
“I m wondering if this could turn out to be the by-election that nobody wins,” said political commentator and columnist for the Daily Telegraph Dan Hodges.
“I think what you re broadly seeing is the voters using by-elections as a means of expressing their discontent at all the mainstream parties.”
Yet on Thursday Conservative candidate Kelly Tollhurst maintained that she could pull off an unlikely victory in Rochester, and called upon voters of all stripes to lend her their support.
“It s a two-horse race and the reality of it is if we don t want to wake up to a UKIP MP on Friday then people who would normally be voting for Labour, the Lib Dems and or anyone else, need to be voting for me,” she said.
Eric Pickles, the Conservative communities secretary, dismissed the warnings of further defections to come.
“I don t think there will be any,” he said during a campaign trip to Rochester.
“We have brought the economy back from the brink. At times when we talk to our friends in UKIP it sounds as though the only thing they really like about our country is its past.”