There is only one party that can take much satisfaction from Eastleigh – and despite their success in defending a seat in difficult circumstances, that party is not the Liberal Democrats.
It is the UK Independence Party who are the moral victors. Once again the party has scaled heights that only a little while ago seemed unimaginable. Its 27.8 per cebt share of the vote was no less than six points higher than its previous all-time high of 21.8 per cent in Rotherham at the end of November – and no less than double its score in Corby a fortnight before that.
Meanwhile, in pushing the Conservatives into third place, Ukip could not have done more to demonstrate the futility of Tory hopes that promising a Euro-referendum would be enough to prick Nigel Farage’s bubble.
The roots of Ukip’s success lie much deeper than distrust of Brussels. The party has become the vehicle of protest for an electorate that is frustrated by falling living standards and unhappy at the sight of a government seemingly unable to turn the economy around - and which feels its concerns are at least being acknowledged by Ukip’s call to protect British jobs through ending the free flow of European Union immigration. Such discontent is more likely to be assuaged by signs of light at the end of the economic tunnel than by the prospect of some dim and distant referendum.
In the meantime, Lib Dem spokespersons were keen for us to believe their success was a “stunning victory” that showed their prospects for 2015 were already nothing like as gloomy as the opinion polls would have us believe.
But a cold look at the statistics gives the lie to this claim. The party’s share of the vote was down by no less than 14.5 points on its tally in Eastleigh in 2010 – a drop every bit as big as that registered by the current national polls. Indeed, it was the third biggest drop ever suffered by the party in a post-war by-election.
Indeed, the Lib Dems’ 32.1 per cent is the lowest share of the vote to be secured by the winner in any post-war constituency by-election. The only reason the party held on to Eastleigh was because voters defected from their coalition partners, the Conservatives, just as rapidly as they did the Lib Dems themselves. And being part of an unloved marriage hardly seems like a solid foundation for future happiness and success.
John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University