The Conservative Party fought a "gentle" campaign in the first by-election test for the coalition, Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles said today.
The Tories finished a distant third in the Oldham East and Saddleworth contest won by Labour, with some in the party claiming the leadership avoided a more robust campaign to bolster support for the Liberal Democrat candidate.
Mr Pickles pointed out that Prime Minister David Cameron had visited the area to support the Tory candidate and insisted the moderate tone was due to the nature of the by-election, which was ordered after an election court declared last year's contest void after finding that Labour victor Phil Woolas had made false statements about Lib Dem rival Elwyn Watkins.
In the by-election Debbie Abrahams, the Labour candidate, was a comfortable winner with 14,718 votes, ahead of Mr Watkins with 11,160. Tory Kashif Ali was third with 4,481 as support for the Conservatives fell away sharply.
Mr Pickles told Sky News: "We were third and we came third again. But by and large it's very unusual for a governing party to win a by-election at a time of austerity."
He added: "We started third and of course we fought a very gentle campaign because that particular campaign was about the nastiness of previous Labour leaflets.
"The Liberals did, I think, pretty good. They increased their poll position. But it would have been a disaster for the Labour Party had they lost."
Pressed on whether the Conservatives had mounted a serious effort he insisted: "Of course we were trying. We had the Prime Minister up there, first prime minister to, I think, canvass in a by-election for years."
Mr Pickles insisted that at the next general election he would be urging people to vote Tory, even in seats where the contest was primarily between Labour and the Lib Dems.
He said: "I think that when that occurs in 2015 you will have two political parties defending a government, a coalition's record.
"But we are two distinct political parties and I certainly will be urging everyone at that election to vote Conservative."