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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Recruitment Genius: Transport Administrator / Planner

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Associate - London

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGHEST QUALITY INTERNATIONAL FIRM - A...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Law Costs - London City

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - EXCELLENT FIRM - We have an outstandin...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee