The by-election in Eastleigh in Hampshire produced three clear winners and two losers; one of those losers being the Prime Minister, and the other, on a far lesser scale, being Ed Miliband and Labour. But it was a high-stakes contest with far-reaching consequences for all concerned, and for the bigger picture of the country’s national politics, too.
The first winner was Nick Clegg and, by extension, the Liberal Democrats. To prevail in such apparently unpropitious circumstances – with the outgoing MP awaiting sentencing for a criminal offence in a case that is still making news, and with allegations of sexual harassment against a one-time party luminary swirling in the media – has to be a tribute to the quality of the candidate, Mike Thornton. But it also says something about the popularity, despite everything, of the former MP Chris Huhne – one of the few Liberal Democrats to increase his majority at the last election. It says something, too, about the political complexion of the Eastleigh constituency, and voters’ ability to judge a candidate on his own merits.
For all these reasons, the significance of Mr Thornton’s victory cannot be overestimated. If the Liberal Democrat candidate had been defeated, Mr Clegg’s other difficulties would have crowded in, and his position as party leader would be in jeopardy. As was clear from his response yesterday, Mr Clegg was one extremely relieved politician. Mr Thornton’s achievement is his party leader’s licence to fight another day.
The second winner at Eastleigh was the UK Independence Party – which had also fielded a strong candidate in the person of Diane James. For an essentially single-issue party – albeit one trying to widen its appeal – to beat the Conservative candidate into third place might be dismissed as an anomaly typical of by-elections. It could also be argued that Eastleigh was naturally favourable territory for Ukip. But Mr Cameron cannot afford to dismiss this result so lightly. It may be that Ukip is taking over the Liberal Democrats’ former role as a repository for the votes of those disillusioned with two-party politics, but this does not make it any less dangerous. Its attraction to rural, Eurosceptic and generally right-wing Conservatives has been demonstrated more convincingly than ever.
The third winner, on a more modest scale, is the Coalition. That is partly because Mr Clegg’s position looks more secure, and partly because, in this one instance at least, the Liberal Democrats seem to have bucked the trend for joining a coalition to spell the political end for the junior partner. But it is also because Mr Cameron now has even less of a reason to want the Coalition to collapse. If the Conservatives had swept to victory, he could have countenanced an early end to the power-sharing arrangement with equanimity, even anticipation. This is no longer so, if it ever was. It may be that the party’s candidate, Maria Hutchings, was weak and made some questionable decisions – such as absenting herself from a BBC discussion show in order to go campaigning with Mr Cameron. But the Coalition now looks more solid than it did before the by-election, and the curse of coalition seems to have attached itself to the Conservatives.
It is as tempting, as it is usually misleading, to treat by-elections, especially mid-term by-elections, as reflecting the national picture or offering clues to the general election result next time around. And Eastleigh was as much of a one-off as any by-election. For all its specifics, however, Eastleigh may indeed suggest some pointers to the future – and if it does, they offer scant consolation to Mr Miliband and still less to Mr Cameron.
To Mr Miliband, this by-election says that Labour still has much work to do before it makes electoral inroads in southern England. The choice of John O’Farrell as the candidate, a party celebrity who failed to strike the right tone, might also cast doubt on the judgement of the party leadership. But the message that Eastleigh conveys to Mr Cameron is still more negative, and probably harder to remedy. It is that his attempts to modernise the party and occupy more of the political centre ground have alienated a significant section of the party and that his attempts to win it back – with his promise of an in-out referendum on European Union membership and tougher language on immigration – have not succeeded in diluting the appeal of Ukip.
Mr Cameron now faces a dilemma. He can try harder to recover the lost voters of Eastleigh and their ilk by moving to the right. In so doing, though, he risks disappointing those who liked the modernising messages and who might then take another look at the Liberal Democrats. The inconvenient truth is that his party is divided, that it is his policies that have helped to divide it, and that his hope of winning an overall majority at the next election – a hope on which his promise of an EU referendum is predicated – seems to be receding almost by the day.
Of course, voters make different decisions in a general election. And, of course, one-man bands, such as Ukip still is, are especially vulnerable to shocks. More than two years remain before the next election and the political landscape is by no means settled. Mr Cameron can hope that by then the Coalition will have a better story to tell about the economy. But that would be good news he would have to share with the Liberal Democrats and it might not heal his party’s ideological divide. In the aftermath of Eastleigh, Mr Cameron has some serious thinking to do.