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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
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

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £30,000+

£16000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for individual...

Recruitment Genius: IT Project Coordinator / Manager

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Mortgage Advisor - OTE £95,000

£40000 - £95000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Vehicle Inspectors / Purchasers

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Vehicle Inspectors / Pu...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy