Eastleigh was a humiliation for the Tories. It was so disastrous that party spokespeople were not even pretending there were silver linings in their dark clouds of despair.
The question now is whether the leadership learns the lessons of this crushing defeat. If it fails to do so, the Hampshire railway town could become an important political landmark alongside the names of epoch-defining by-elections of the past.
There is a tendency in politics to get overexcited by the drama of events that rapidly fade into the distance. Voters protest against governing parties at by-elections and while one half of the coalition won, both parties saw their share of the vote fall by similar levels. But Eastleigh feels different. As one influential Conservative told me yesterday, the party is not just fighting to win the next election but for survival in a volatile world.
The Liberal Democrats pulled off an astounding triumph, given the backdrop of falling national polls, a criminal Cabinet minister and sex pest claims. It shows the power of incumbency, especially with a decent local candidate and well-drilled forces on the ground – the solitary crumb of comfort the Conservatives as largest party can draw from this bleak ballot.
Labour flopped in a seat they came second in once under an unpopular Conservative prime minister. They should have picked up protest votes against the Coalition. Instead, they suffered from woeful lack of credibility on the economy.
But the key story is the surge of Ukip. At Corby last November they won 14 per cent of the vote, at Rotherham two weeks later 22 per cent, and now at Eastleigh 28 per cent. Their policies are absurd, with promises of tax cuts for all while boosting pensions, building prisons and reintroducing student grants. But this is a party of protest, whether people are angered by bankers’ bonuses or benefit “scroungers”, and they benefit from the anti-politics mood that has erupted in Europe by touching every disaffected nerve.
The critical Conservative mistake is to combat this insurgency by moving onto Ukip terrain, which merely reinforces the enemy’s message. For the past month there have been endless attempts to grab headlines with tough talk on immigration – apart from the Prime Minister’s jaunt to India to undo the damage caused by this stance. In Eastleigh, the campaign focused on the deficit, Europe, welfare and immigration – a strategy dictated by new campaign chief Lynton Crosby. Incredibly, some literature even mimicked Ukip colours.
Eastleigh proves it is pointless for Conservatives to present themselves as Ukip Lite. If voters want Ukip, they choose the real thing. The Tories must focus on the electorate’s daily concerns – above all, the economy, but also the cost of living, housing shortages, the greedy behaviour of corporate cartels and salvaging our education and health systems. The unvarnished Maria Hutchings could have given voice to such issues had she not been cast in a Sarah Palin role.
It is especially daft to drift to the right when fighting for a Liberal Democrat seat. The dismal campaign underlines the mistake of hiring Crosby, whose toots on the dog whistle failed again, just as they failed in the past even before the rise of Ukip.
David Cameron needs to offer voters authenticity, competence and consistency – which means being true to himself as an optimistic modern Conservative rather than listening to siren voices of the misanthropic right. His party’s plummet in the polls began when he caved in to their demands to cut taxes on the rich.
Mr Cameron had a sensible strategy that united the party at last year’s conference, since when it has been subsumed beneath short-term tactical forays designed to see off Ukip. As Eastleigh shows, this approach will never work. He can only defeat the anti-politics alliance and the unappeasable right with a government confronting the real challenges of the age. He must face the future not the past, governing in the name of the hard-pressed majority rather than seeking to win over a shrill disaffected minority.