Editorial: Mr Cameron was the biggest loser in Eastleigh

The curse of coalition now appears to have attached itself to the Conservatives

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Programme Test Manager

£400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are currently seekin...

IT Network Manager - Shepherd's Bush, London

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Network Manager - Shepherd's Bush...

Secondary supply teachers needed in Peterborough

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Secondary supply teac...

Modern Foreign Languages Teacher

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: Full time German Supply Teacher...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh  

Scottish independence: Forget Yes and No — what about a United Kingdom of Independent States?

Ben Judah
Francois Hollande at the Paris summit on Iraq with ministers from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on 15 September  

What's going to happen in Syria and Iraq? A guide to the new anti-Isis coalition's global strategy

Jonathan Russell
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week