After Eastleigh the Lib Dems still have a long way to go, but don't bet against them just yet

Inside Westminster: Clegg feels he has proved the critics wrong and allies say he is now 'absolutely secure' in his post for the 2015 election

"We will fight 57 by-election campaigns at the next general election," smiled the Liberal Democrat strategist as Nick Clegg's party breathed a deep collective sigh of relief after avoiding defeat in the Eastleigh by-election.

Jubilant Lib Dems  dared to raise the prospect of not merely holding the party’s 57 seats in 2015, but even seizing some Conservative-held marginals.

A week before the Eastleigh contest, the Lib Dems were confident of a comfortable victory. Then they were destabilised by the untimely allegations that Lord Rennard, their former chief executive, sexually harassed party activists. To say there was a wobble about the Eastleigh result is an under-statement. “Our canvassing figures were all over the place; it was impossible to call it,” one Clegg aide admitted.

Victory allows Mr Clegg to feel vindicated. His internal critics doubted the party could win while it is in power. Although local issues played a big part in the by-election, the Lib Dems also fought on their record in the Coalition. Mr Clegg feels he has proved the critics wrong, and allies say he is now “absolutely secure” in his post for the 2015 election. The party is good at digging in once it wins a seat, and projections based on nationwide opinion polls do not take account of that. Incumbency is a bigger factor now that  MPs have become glorified councillors, no longer able to ignore constituency casework.

The Lib Dems deserve  plaudits for sticking to their guns and Mr Clegg has shown resilience under fire. But the party leadership shouldn’t get too carried away. At the general election, the Lib Dems will not be able to flood all their 57 seats with the hundreds of party workers  they dispatched to Eastleigh; there will not be enough to go round. And Mr Clegg’s party may struggle to repeat its performance in Hampshire in the north of England, where voters may be less forgiving about the Lib Dems jumping into bed with the Tories in  2010. Labour stands to benefit.

Defeat in Eastleigh would have provoked a leadership crisis for Mr Clegg. There are many in his party who believe he is so “toxic” in the voters’ eyes that he cannot be “decontaminated”, that the party is so damaged it cannot be repaired while he remains at the helm. After Eastleigh, his critics will have to bide their time.  But it is wrong to assume that Mr Clegg is with one bound free to lead his troops into battle in 2015.

Some Lib Dem members fear the party could come fifth behind the UK Independence Party, Labour, the Tories and the Greens in next year’s European Parliament elections. Mr Clegg could then face a grassroots revolt aimed at installing Vince Cable as leader, while allowing him to remain as Deputy Prime Minister until the 2015 election.

In the short term, it is David Cameron who is under pressure. The Tory MPs who cannot forgive him for failing to  win a majority in 2010 are even more convinced he is a loser.  The demands for a tax-cutting Budget, an-ever tougher line on Europe and immigration and a shift to the right will  grow, though he would be unwise to pander to his critics. Having a right-wing candidate in Eastleigh didn’t do the Tories much good.

There won’t be an immediate Tory leadership crisis. Mr Cameron’s internal critics had already priced in defeat in the by-election. But some detect a “slow burner” that could explode later – Ukip’s strong second place. If it comes top in the Euro elections, which looks likely after Eastleigh, Tory backbenchers in Con-Lab marginals will fear for their seats – not that Ukip could win them, but that it could take enough votes to let Labour in through the back door. Although we can expect lots of talk about anti-Cameron plots and leadership coups, I suspect it will come to nothing before the general election. The Tory manoeuvres will really be about what happens if the party doesn’t win a majority in 2015.

To combat the Ukip threat, we can expect a pretty crude scare campaign from the Tories. They are convinced that people will vote differently at general elections and so will warn that voting Ukip could install Ed Miliband as prime minister. This has dangers for Labour. Although it plays down its fourth place in what officials describe as “our 268th target seat”, Eastleigh  highlights two big challenges for Labour – how to win in the south and to convince voters it is fiscally responsible. They are not unrelated. Presented by the Tories with a straight choice between Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband,  many wavering voters may opt for the devil they know if they don’t trust the other one.

We now know the Lib Dems cannot be written off and will still be the game. Indeed, they might well still hold the balance of power in a second hung parliament. There’s a long way to go yet, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

Voices
Numbers of complaints about unwanted calls have trebled in just six months
voices
News
people
Arts & Entertainment
Picture of innocence: Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington in ‘Derek’
tvReview: The insights of Ricky Gervais's sweet and kind character call to mind Karl Pilkington's faux-naïf podcast observations
Life & Style
Looking familiar: The global biometrics industry is expected to grow to $20bn by 2020
tech
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
Higher expectations: European economies are growing but the recovery remains weak
newsThe eurozone crisis has tipped many into despair and extremism - this radically altered landscape calls for a new kind of politics, argues economist Philippe Legrain
Arts & Entertainment
Tangled up in blue: Singer-songwriter Judith Owen
musicAnd how husband Harry Shearer - of Spinal Tap and The Simpsons fame - helped her music flourish
Sport
Karim Benzema celebrates scoring the opening goal
sportReal Madrid 1 Bayern Munich 0: Germans will need their legendary self-belief to rescue Champions League tie in second leg
Arts & Entertainment
Paul Weller: 'I am a big supporter of independent record stores but the greedy touts making a fast buck off genuine fans is disgusting'
music
Arts & Entertainment
William Shakespeare's influence on English culture is still strongly felt today, from his plays on stage to words we use everyday
arts
Sport
Manchester United manager David Moyes has claimed supporters understand the need to look at
sportScot thanks club staff and fans, but gives no specific mention of players
News
Strange 'quack' noises could be undersea chatter of Minke whales
science
News
weird news... and film it, obviously
Life & Style
Balancing act: City workers at the launch of Cityfathers
lifeThe organisation is the brainchild of Louisa Symington-Mills who set up Citymothers in 2012 - a group boasting more than 3,000 members
Arts & Entertainment
tv
News
Fresh hope: Ruth Womak and her dog Jess. A free training course in basic computing skills changed Ruth’s life
educationHow a housing association's remarkable educational initiative gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Construction Solicitor – Surrey

Excellent Salary Package: Austen Lloyd: This is a rare high level opportunity ...

Construction Solicitor NQ+ Manchester

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: This is an excellent opportunity within...

Corporate Finance

£80000 - £120000 per annum + Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: US QUALI...

Banking / Finance Associate - City

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: Banking / Finance Associate - We have an exce...

Day In a Page

Migrants in Britain a decade on: The Poles who brought prosperity

Migrants in Britain a decade on

The Poles who brought prosperity
Philippe Legrain: 'The eurozone crisis has tipped many into disillusionment, despair and extremism - we need a European Spring'

Philippe Legrain: 'We need a European Spring'

The eurozone crisis has tipped many into disillusionment, despair and extremism - this radically altered landscape calls for a new kind of politics, argues the economist
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj
Judith Owen reveals how husband Harry Shearer - star of This Is Spinal Tap and The Simpsons - helped her music flourish

Judith Owen: 'How my husband helped my music flourish'

Her mother's suicide and father's cancer also informed the singer-songwriter's new album, says Pierre Perrone
The online lifeline: How a housing association's remarkable educational initiative gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression

Online lifeline: Housing association's educational initiative

South Yorkshire Housing Association's free training courses gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression
Face-recognition software: Is this the end of anonymity for all of us?

Face-recognition software: The end of anonymity?

The software is already used for military surveillance, by police to identify suspects - and on Facebook
Train Kick Selfie Guy is set to scoop up to $250,000 thanks to his viral video - so how can you cash in on your candid moments?

Viral videos: Cashing in on candid moments

Train Kick Selfie Guy Jared Frank could receive anything between $30,000 to $250,000 for his misfortune - and that's just his cut of advertising revenue from being viewed on YouTube
The world's fastest elevators - 20 metres per second - are coming soon to China

World's fastest elevators coming soon to China

Whatever next? Simon Usborne finds out from Britain's highest authority on the subject
Cityfathers tackles long-hours culture that causes men to miss out on seeing their children

Cityfathers tackles long-hours culture

The organisation is the brainchild of Louisa Symington-Mills, a chief operating officer who set up Citymothers in 2012 - a group that now boasts more than 3,000 members
Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home

It's not always fun in the sun: Moving abroad does not guarantee happiness

Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home
Migrants in Britain a decade on: They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire

Migrants in Britain a decade on

They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire
Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

The 'Thick of It' favourite thinks the romcom is an 'awful genre'. So why is he happy with a starring role in Sky Living's new Lake District-set series 'Trying Again'?
Why musicians play into their old age

Why musicians play into their old age

Nick Hasted looks at how they are driven by a burning desire to keep on entertaining fans despite risking ridicule
How can you tell a gentleman?

How can you tell a gentleman?

A list of public figures with gallant attributes by Country Life magazine throws a fascinating light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world
Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

The duo behind Asos and Achica have launched a new venture offering haute couture to help make furry companions fashionable