The Lib Dems' by-election campaign in Eastleigh was overshadowed yesterday when a former constituency chairman and NHS chief defected to a party campaigning against the Government's health reforms.
Dr Graham Winyard, ex-chairman of Winchester Lib Dems, the next-door seat to Eastleigh, accused Nick Clegg's party of betraying the NHS by backing the shake-up of the service, as he signed up to the National Health Action party. The NHA, which plans to field candidates in as many seats as possible in 2015, is to challenge the Lib Dems and Conservatives in Eastleigh with its candidate, a doctor and former Navy medical officer, Iain Maclennan. The Lib Dems selected a local councillor, Mike Thornton, as their candidate last night.
The campaign, the first since the coalition was formed in which the Conservatives and Lib Dems both have a realistic chance of victory, began in earnest yesterday as Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, arrived in the Hampshire seat to declare: "Chris Huhne is part of the past."
Mr Grayling's verdict on the new status of the disgraced former energy secretary yesterday was particularly brutal. "What we are talking about here is the future," he added, peering through the sleet during a choreographed campaign visit to one of the more affluent parts of Mr Huhne's former constituency.
It was only five days after Mr Huhne had ignominiously quit as MP, but the constituency had already been plunged into the breathless fight to find his successor. Until yesterday evening, the Conservatives were the only main party to name a candidate, but already worthies from all sides had begun the trek down from London to bother the shoppers on the main street.
Mr Grayling's Tory cabinet colleagues Theresa Villiers, Sir George Young and Maria Miller were expected over the weekend before a big push, including the Prime Minister himself, next week. The Lib Dems sent Danny Alexander, and grandly promised Nick Clegg tomorrow.
Mr Alexander told The Independent on Sunday last night: "We'll still be working with the Tories at a national level, but there's no reason that prevents us from having a very strong campaign. I'm prepared for a tough fight."
The by-election, to be held within the month , has swiftly become a dry run for the next general election.
The feverish atmosphere is intensified by the fact that all three main parties – and Ukip – are convinced they can use Eastleigh as an opportunity to make a significant political statement. At the 2010 general election Mr Huhne increased his share of the vote by 8.2 percentage points, beyond 46 per cent; in the immediate aftermath of his guilty plea on Monday, a poll by the Tory peer Lord Ashcroft put the Lib Dems on 31 per cent, three points behind the Tories. Mr Grayling yesterday conceded that the Lib Dems were "dug in" in Eastleigh, but another Tory minister declared it was "by temperament a Tory seat". "We only lost it when the Liberals took advantage at a difficult by-election 20 years ago; I think the voters are ready to come home."
The Lib Dems at least acknowledge the challenge from the Conservatives, insisting the seat is "a classic two-way marginal", but Lord Ashcroft's figures show that, despite their new-found lead, the Tories are still six points behind their 2010 benchmark. Labour has recovered nine points to stand at 19 per cent, while Ukip is up to 13 per cent, compared with four in 2010. Senior Lib Dem aides point out, however, that the party still holds every one of the 36 council seats within the parliamentary constituency boundaries. "It will be very close, but we are confident that we can win," a senior Westminster Lib Dem said last night.
Despite the protestations of his party and their opponents, the shadow of Chris Huhne already looms large over the campaign. Tory election leaflets archly proclaim Maria Hutchings as "a local candidate you can trust". They do not mention her more challenging views, particularly her opposition to gay marriage, which was blurted out during an impromptu media appearance.
While Mr Grayling was in comfortable Bursledon, aiming much of his fire at Ukip, that party's leader, Nigel Farage, was back in the centre of Eastleigh pledging to make the constituency a "four-way marginal".
Labour, still three days away from naming a candidate, is gamely led by former minister John Denham. One activist confessed: "We would probably be happy with a strong second place." Even post-Gordon Brown and Chris Huhne, this looks a distant prospect.
"Everyone has something to defend," a senior member of the Lib Dem team said last night. "But they all have a lot to lose. The real story of this campaign will be less about who wins than what happens to the losers. I think it could turn very ugly indeed."