Eastleigh by-election: Divided, dejected Tories count the cost of defeat

Despite a bevy of Tory MPs descending on Eastleigh, the party could not prevent former supporters turning to Ukip

She had been instructed by party minders to say nothing. But they need not have bothered. The silent, fixed, tight smile said it all.

Maria Hutchings, the defeated Conservative candidate in Eastleigh, was the last to arrive at the election count and she was the first to leave – hustled away by grim-faced aides pushing back the scrum of photographers and journalists shouting questions at her. It was an unedifying end to 21 days of fame.

And how different it was from a few weeks ago when she was feted by David Cameron and the Tory chairman Grant Shapps as the straight-talking mother of four who was going to win Eastleigh for Tories and inflict a humiliating defeat on their Liberal Democrat coalition partners.

Cabinet ministers, MPs and party staff were all instructed to spend at least a day in Eastleigh campaigning to ensure victory.

Some went much more than that. David Cameron visited twice and several MPs made the return journey from London as many as 14 times in the three-week campaign.

But, in the end, all they witnessed first-hand were the failings of the party’s election campaign – against the well-organised and well dug-in Liberal Democrats and an insurgent threat from Ukip.

So what went wrong for the Tories? How were they able to lose a seat they have targeted to win in 2015 – against the favourable tailwinds of a disgraced Liberal Democrat MP and an unsavoury sex scandal?

Sources close to the campaign now admit that it was lost almost before it had begun.

When Central Office staff arrived in Eastleigh in the wake of Chris Huhne’s resignation they were greeted by a fractious local party who had done almost no work to garner support since the 2010 election.

“It was one of the worst Tory associations that I’ve ever seen,” said one person involved in the campaign. “There had been internal quarrels, no real local membership base and no canvassing. We were starting from scratch.”

Tory Central Office shipped in staff, sophisticated polling software and the party’s head of campaigns, Stephen Gilbert, to run the by-election.

Extraordinarily, party sources now admit, around a third of the leafleting and canvassing during the campaign was the work of Tory members of Parliament. The rest was undertaken by volunteers from outside the area with almost no support from the local party.

And it soon told. As one MP who visited the constituency on several occasions put it: “You can have the most powerful computer in the world but if put rubbish data in you’ll get rubbish information out.” There were also difficulties with the candidate. The brutal campaign took its toll on Ms Hutchings.

She was particularly upset that comments she made about wanting her son to be privately educated were misinterpreted and became a subject of hostile media reports.

This weekend a female Conservative Party worker has been asked to stay in Eastleigh to support her as she comes to terms with defeat.

“She is understandably very down and we want to make sure she is alright,” said a campaign aide.

But the weak Tory campaign is not the full story of Eastleigh. Ukip also had no ground operation to speak of when the campaign was called – yet managed to increase its share of the vote from 3.6 per cent to 27 per cent.

In part this was due to being the “none-of-the-above” party on ballot papers.

But, not without justification, Ukip’s leader Nigel Farage said there was more behind its strong showing than that. “People will say it was a protest vote, but we attracted voters who had not cast a ballot for 20 years – they are not protest votes,” he said.

“The Conservatives failed here because traditional Tory voters look at Cameron and they ask themselves, ‘Is he a Conservative?’ and they conclude ‘No, he’s not’.”

Some Conservatives concede that may be true – and that Ukip is appealing to a type of “blue-collar” Tory who used to be Thatcher stalwarts.

“The consensus view is that this was a protest vote,” said one MP. “But what if it’s not? Ukip has now moved beyond Europe and is campaigning on issues that used to be Tory bread-and-butter issues. That must be a concern for us in 2015.”

But the Tories could at least take comfort from Labour’s dismal showing and pointed out yesterday that for a main opposition party to come fourth in a by-election was hardly a ringing endorsement.

“This did nothing for Labour’s southern strategy,” said one Tory aide. “Their result may not get the attention ours does but they’ve got as many questions to answer.”

And the Liberal Democrats?

Yesterday relief was written all across Nick Clegg’s face as he spoke of a “stunning win” during an early morning visit to congratulate his newest MP Mike Thornton.

Not only has the party held on despite being in government but has also survived bruising revelations about its former chief executive Lord Rennard. Mr Clegg however knows that the Eastleigh effect may not be replicated in 2015 and that a national poll rating of 8 per cent cannot just be discounted as mid-term blues. That being said, the result has given his party a much-needed shot of hope. And in politics hope can generate its own momentum.

As, of course, can failure.

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