This time round there can be only one winner: The stakes are high for both coalition party leaders in Eastleigh

Inside Westminster

It was not supposed to be like this. When David Cameron decided to press ahead with a Bill to legalise gay marriage, he was confident of sending a positive signal to the voters that the Conservative Party had changed.

On Tuesday, 137 Tories voted against the measure, only 126 supported it and another 40 abstained. Remarkably, Mr Cameron was in a minority in his own party. He had, unwittingly, advertised the very opposite of what he intended: his party has not changed anything like as much as he hoped.

“The lesson of the 2010 election was that we didn’t modernise enough,” one Cameroon said. “Many of our MPs act as if the voters were clamouring for more right-wing policies. They think they are the solution. The truth is that they are the problem.”

The Liberal Democrats sniff an opportunity. Entering a coalition with the Lib Dems might have helped the Tories detox themselves. But if Mr Cameron cannot take his party with him, it is easier for Nick Clegg to position his party as the Coalition’s conscience. As one Lib Dem minister put it: “There are two Conservative parties – Cameron’s compassionate version and the nasty party.”

Although the Lib Dems face a difficult by-election in Eastleigh on February 28 after the Chris Huhne’s resignation, Mr Clegg’s party has a spring in its step.

One reason is the arrival of Ryan Coetzee as Mr Clegg’s director of strategy last autumn. He is a street-fighting number-cruncher who has brought discipline to an often incoherent Lib Dem message. He is a tough cookie more suited to an election run-up than his more cerebal predecessor Richard Reeves, former head of the Demos think tank, who has moved to the United States.

Mr Coetzee is from South Africa, where he was both an MP and election strategist for the Democratic Alliance, the Lib Dems’ sister party. He was warned that independent-minded Lib Dem activists would not like being told to be “on message.” In fact, they welcomed clearer marching orders from the top.

The one-time protest party is growing up as it tastes power, as Mr Clegg always hoped. Indeed, the Lib Dems often seem more grown up and disciplined than the Tories, whose MPs have lapsed into mad plots against a leader even though he is more popular than his party. The Coetzee strategy was evident when Mr Clegg leapt out of the starting blocks with an attack on the Tories over tax to launch his Eastleigh campaign. Mr Coetzee’s extensive polling shows that the public regards the tax threshold rise as a Lib Dem rather than Conservative policy. We are going to hear an awful  lot about this £9bn Lib Dem tax cut before the next election. “We have to show where we have made a difference inside the Coalition,” said one Lib Dem source.

The first head-to-head in a Lib-Con marginal since 2010 will strain relations between the Coalition partners. There can only be one winner in Eastleigh; the parties cannot match-fix a draw as they regularly do in policy disputes. The next few weeks may get nasty but Tory MPs who hope the Coalition will collapse will be disappointed. It has firmer foundations than they realise.

The Eastleigh stakes are high for both party leaders. A Tory victory would give Mr Cameron the breathing space in his own party that his promise of a Europe referendum failed to achieve. It would be hard for the plotters to argue he is not a winner. Conversely, a Tory defeat would remind their MPs that Mr Cameron failed to win a majority in 2010 and heighten their fears that he might fail again in 2015.

It would be easier for Mr Clegg than Mr Cameron to shrug off a defeat in the by-election. Although the Lib Dems have a strong base locally, they could attribute losing to a “Huhne effect.” However, a Lib Dem win would give the party hope that being in power might not mean an electoral bloodbath in 2015 after all.

The Lib Dems are targeting the 20 per cent of the electorate who are undecided, six out of 10 of whom would consider backing the Lib Dems. Many will be “soft Conservative” supporters in the south of England. This will be the key battleground between the Coalition parties in 2015, so Eastleigh will give us a fascinating preview.

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: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy