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 year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
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

Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Growing Law firm

£35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable law firm based in central London ...

Ashdown Group: Part time Network Support Analyst / Windows Systems Administrat

£30 per hour: Ashdown Group: An industry leading and well established business...

The Jenrick Group: Controls Engineer

Negotiable: The Jenrick Group: A Controls Engineer is urgently required for a ...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Manager

£32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an an exciting opportunity to jo...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas