Top Horsham Tory defects to UKIP - EXCLUSIVE

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One of the most senior Conservative district councillors in West Sussex has dramatically quit the party and defected to UKIP.

Roger Arthur, the deputy leader at Tory-controlled Horsham District Council and its cabinet member for finance informed colleagues in the past 24 hours.

His decision he said comes at a time when local Conservative associations are haemorrhaging support because the party nationally has ‘lost touch’ with its core values.

The announcement will pile on the political pressure in the run-up to May’s county council elections - which has traditionally been a Conservative stronghold.

It also comes in the wake of resignations by two Tory district councillors at HDC - including that of Andrew Dunlop who hit the headlines a year ago for using his council car parking pass while not on council business.

Explaining his decision this week, Mr Arthur said he had thought ‘long and hard’ about it but having become increasingly disillusioned at the way in which the Conservative Leadership was drifting, he had resigned from the Conservative Party.

“I had hoped to see a strong sense of conviction re-emerging from within the Tory executive, along with some of the core values that sustained the party in better times. Unfortunately that hope is fading and there is much evidence that the leadership is out of touch with members and with the real world.

“A lot of traditional supporters have been disappointed at the continuing lack of strong direction. Many of those were footsoldiers, who have been departing in their droves, such that quite a few local associations are no longer viable as fighting machines.

“I regret having to take this action but I need to be free to criticise the current leadership in public and without constraint.”

Mr Arthur said he had considered resigning immediately as a councillor as well as from the party and offering himself up as a UKIP councillor for re-election to serve the people of Chanctonbury but has decided to wait until the district council elections in two years’ time rather than forcing another by-election now.

“All another by-election would achieve is add another £10,000 of costs to hard-pressed council tax payers. Furthermore, the people elected me as an individual on the basis of the values and beliefs I represented. None of that has changed. It’s the Conservative Party that has altered out of recognition and no longer represents those views. UKIP is the real Conservative Party.”

Mr Arthur’s announcement comes just two weeks after fellow Conservative district councillor Philip Circus, writing in a personal capacity in this newspaper, accused the party of having lost touch with its roots in a brutal assessment which sent shockwaves through the local political establishment.

Although Mr Arthur has resigned from the Conservative Party and can no longer continue as its deputy group leader, he is entitled to remain as a councillor. The public elect the individual and not the party. He also continues as Deputy Leader of the council, as he is elected to that position by the entire council, unless he chooses to relinquish that post or the Conservative majority vote to replace him.

Given the support that Mr Arthur has enjoyed from some backbenchers it is not yet clear whether there would be a groundswell of support to remove him and there is a precedent for opposition parties to hold key council posts. The current chairman of Horsham District Council is Leonard Crosbie, a Lib Dem.

Since UKIP beat the Conservatives into third place in the Eastleigh by-election last month, they have been gaining ground in national opinion polls - with one recent survey putting them just ten points behind the Tories.

The full inside story about Mr Arthur’s defection along with detailed expert analysis will appear in next week’s West Sussex Gazette and West Sussex County Times. In the meantime, you can add your comments to this report on this page.