Editorial: Don't heed the right's siren song, Mr Cameron

The Eastleigh by-election result prompted a slew of predictable reactions. The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, sounded amazed to be celebrating a victory. Nigel Farage insisted the UK Independence Party (Ukip) was about much more than Europe. And with Labour making no headway on its general election showing, Ed Miliband admitted he had more work to do.

David Cameron's response was less predictable – in words at least. With his party's candidate outpolled both by the Liberal Democrats and by Ukip, the Conservative leader was bombarded with exhortations to turn right. To his credit, Mr Cameron rebuffed them. In an article for The Sunday Telegraph – house newspaper of the Tory shires – the Prime Minister chose a more statesmanlike course. "The battle for Britain's future," he said, would not be won "in lurching to the right", nor by what he called "lowest common denominator politics".

He seemed to be saying that he would not be panicked into a right turn just because more by-election voters had plumped for a party further to the right than the Conservatives. In one way, that showed as much pragmatism as wisdom. Although Mr Cameron is Prime Minister and his party is the senior partner in the Coalition, he is still in coalition. He cannot operate as though the Conservatives have an overall majority; that option was expressly excluded by the voters in 2010 and reinforced last week by the result at Eastleigh. Mr Cameron must respect that reality.

How politically wise his calculation will prove depends in part on whether Ukip's surge amounts to more than an ephemeral protest vote and in part on how well Liberal Democrat support holds up. The Conservatives may well have to fight the next general election on both flanks; Mr Cameron cannot afford to sacrifice one or other at this stage.

By accident or design, though, the Prime Minister was not the only Conservative to take to the metaphorical hustings this weekend. Even as voters went to the polls in Eastleigh, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, was claiming credit for a sharp fall in net migration. On Saturday, the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, made headlines, warning that the military could bear no more cuts and that any further economies should fall on welfare.

Then yesterday the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, harrumphed on the BBC's The Andrew Marr Show about the need to tighten benefit conditions for new migrants, while the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, suggested that a Conservative government would sever ties with the European Court of Human Rights. Suddenly, many long-standing gripes of the party's right were being given an airing.

What was unclear was whether this was a matter of senior ministers sensing which way the political wind was blowing and readying themselves, perhaps, to take on Mr Cameron, or whether it represented an evolving strategy that would allow the Prime Minister to take the moral high ground, while delegating the street fighting to willing ministers. Either way, the signals came across as mixed. Communication used to be one of Mr Cameron's strongest suits. To carry conviction, though, the deeds have to match the words.