Miliband keeps the champagne on ice as PM faces wrath of Tory right

Conservative leadership accused of pulling punches to protect Clegg as Labour claims result is first step towards rebuilding

David Cameron faced the fury of the Tory Right as it blamed his "half-hearted" campaign for the collapse in the party's vote in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election.

They accused the Conservative leadership of pulling its punches in an effort to shore up support for the Liberal Democrats.

Labour's Debbie Abrahams secured a comfortable victory in the Coalition's first major test, winning the seat with a majority of 3,558 over the Liberal Democrat Elwyn Watkins. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, will today call for the party to use it as a springboard to rebuild itself as "the standard-bearer of the progressive majority".

Nick Clegg was relieved that the predicted haemorrhage of support for the Liberal Democrats, who have hit single figures in national polls, failed to materialise. Instead it was the Tory share of the vote that collapsed by more than half, triggering right-wing protests over Mr Cameron's softly-softly approach to his coalition partners.

The Prime Minister is facing growing attacks from restless backbenchers – 27 of whom rebelled against the party whip over Europe this week – complaining that he is conceding too much influence to Mr Clegg's party. Some even fear Mr Cameron is considering a Con-Lib Dem electoral pact at the next general election.

The former party chairman Lord Tebbit described the Oldham East performance as "dreadful" and added: "Mr Cameron may be pleased that his decision to run a half-hearted campaign and offer good wishes to their candidate helped save the Liberals, but Conservatives will be downcast.

"The Liberals fought an excellent campaign and with the help of Mr Cameron they avoided total disaster." He claimed that the Tory tactics had played into the hands of the UK Independence Party, who came fourth with more than 2,000 votes.

The MP Douglas Carswell protested that the Tory candidate, Kashif Ali, had been "let down" by the leadership. "It is usually a good idea if you want to do well as a party to make it clear that you are serious about trying to win. We have paid the price on the doorstep and our leaders should reflect on that," he said.

Bernard Jenkin, the MP for North Essex, said: "The Conservative candidate did well, considering there was such ambivalence from the leadership about whether they wanted to the Conservative Party to do well."

Frustration among Mr Cameron's allies over the continued sniping from party critics was laid bare by the Tory chairman, Baroness Warsi, who denied running a token campaign in the by-election. She added: "As far as the right-wing of our party are concerned, I would say this to them: We had many, many MPs turning up. We had some who made much comment about the fact that we weren't fighting a strong enough campaign but, interestingly, didn't turn up to campaign."

The contest was called after Phil Woolas, who won the seat last year by a margin of 103, was found guilty of lying about his Liberal Democrat opponent in the general election. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats poured huge efforts into the campaigning in the Greater Manchester seat, and both drew comfort from their vote holding up.

Mr Miliband's position was bolstered by the result after criticism that he had failed to make more of an early impact as leader.

He will tell a Fabian Society conference in London today that it was a clear rejection of coalition policies. He is due to say: "Forgive me if I decline to join those of you gloating at the expense of the Liberal Democrats.

"Their decision to join a Conservative-led government was a tragic mistake, and I hope they come to see that in time. Labour over the next four years must become again the standard bearer of the progressive majority."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
footballHe started just four months ago
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Travel
Streets ahead: Venice
travelWhat's trending on your wishlist?
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

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

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
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect