Champagne all round at the Clegg household this weekend. After arguably the worst week for the Liberal Democrats since they joined the coalition almost three years ago, they still managed to win Eastleigh last night. Party officials described the national backdrop to the by-election as their ‘worst case scenario’, but they still did it. With slight concerns about the rapid rise of UKIP, the Lib Dems can now move towards 2015 with confidence.
There are however, serious contrasts between the situation for the Liberal Democrats locally in Eastleigh, and nationally around the UK. With a hold on the Parliamentary seat for 19 years and complete control of the local council, the party is a strong here. Without detracting from the political feat of a Governmental by-election success, a Lib Dem loss would have been much more significant than a Lib Dem win.
And, other than his excellent envelope-stuffing skills, how much of a role did Nick Clegg play in this by-election? The day-to-day running of the campaign reportedly landed on the desk of party president Tim Farron, who attended the count last night. Regardless, it will be nice for the Deputy Prime Minister to think that, for once, he’s not the party leader with the most trouble to deal with.
Bleary-eyed hacks in Eastleigh last night were chuckling that, despite being up for goodness knows how many hours, it’s safe to say they would have a healthier night’s sleep than the Prime Minister. After the diabolical week the Lib Dems have been facing, it’s hard to think of a better set of circumstances for the Tories to pick up Eastleigh. They need to take twenty of these seats away from Liberal Democrats in 2015 if they want to get even a whiff of a Parliamentary majority.
The evident failure to do so in just one constituency will undoubtedly cause problems for David Cameron. Questions are already being raised about his ability to lead the Conservative Party to victory at the next General Election. However, most of this chatter is swiftly halted by the realisation that no Tory is in a better place than Cameron for success in two years’ time.
Despite this, Labour seem to be keen to point out just how bad Thursday night was for the Conservatives. It’s always a clear indication of how a party has done when their key officials would rather discuss the performances of others before their own. It was a bad night for Labour.
A few party sources at the count pointed out that Labour, unlike either of the coalition parties, had managed to increase their Eastleigh vote share since 2010. This is a valid observation, but I don’t think Ed Miliband had a mere 0.22 per cent boost and fourth-place candidate in mind when dreaming up the ‘One Nation’ mantra. In reality, fourth place in a southern by-election for an opposition Labour Party should set alarm bells ringing.