It was a successful night for the Liberal Democrats in Eastleigh and a disastrous one for the Tories. The Liberal Democrats held on with a majority a touch over 1,700. While the Tories came third, polling more than a thousand votes behind UKIP who surged in to second place. Labour had nothing to cheer either, coming a poor fourth—a result that makes it hard for Ed Miliband to claim they are a ‘one nation’ party.
There’ll be three immediate political consequences of this result. First, Nick Clegg’s position is strengthened. Holding the seat with a majority of more than a thousand, demonstrates that the Liberal Democrats are not in the dire position that the national polls suggest. Clegg, despite all his Lord Rennard difficulties, will head to Liberal Democrat Spring Conference armed with evidence that the coalition isn’t going to be fatal to the party in 2015.
Second, David Cameron will face more soundings off against his leadership. The failure to take a seat off the Liberal Democrats in these circumstances—the previous MP quitting after pleading guilty to attempting to pervert the course of justice and the Liberal Democrats embroiled in a sleaze scandal for the week before polling day—illustrates just how hard it’ll be for the Tories to take 15 to 20 seats off them in 2015. This knocks out a key plank of the CCHQ majority strategy. While, UKIP pushing Tories into second will increase backbench concern about the threat posed by Britain’s new protest party. Tory MPs will warn that allowing all Romanian and Bulgarian workers who want it entry to Britain from the end of this year is going to compound this problem.
Third, UKIP have shown that they are now—at least, when it comes to by-elections—a serious force. In Eastleigh, they’ve gone in a short campaign from 3.6% of the vote in 2010 to 28% tonight. One imagines that if there was another by-election in a Liberal-Conservative marginal, UKIP could take it. They’ve also in Diane James found a serious, impressive female voice for the party.
Labour, though, should be concerned by this result however bad it is for Cameron. The fact that their vote increased by a mere 0.2% in a seat held by a coalition party is, by any measure, poor. It suggests that the party’s message on the economy and living standards isn’t cutting through in the south. It’s also notable that the 10p tax cut doesn’t seem to have delivered for Labour in this contest.
Mike Thornton (LD) 13,342 (32.06%, -14.48%)
Diane James (UKIP) 11,571 (27.80%, +24.20%)
Maria Hutchings (C) 10,559 (25.37%, -13.96%)
John O’Farrell (Lab) 4,088 (9.82%, +0.22%)
Danny Stupple (Ind) 768 (1.85%, +1.56%)
Dr Iain Maclennan (NHA) 392 (0.94%)
Ray Hall (Beer) 235 (0.56%)
Kevin Milburn (Christian) 163 (0.39%)
Howling Laud Hope (Loony) 136 (0.33%)
Jim Duggan (Peace) 128 (0.31%)
David Bishop (Elvis) 72 (0.17%)
Michael Walters (Eng Dem) 70 (0.17%, -0.30%)
Daz Procter (TUSC) 62 (0.15%)
Colin Bex (Wessex Reg) 30 (0.07%)
LD maj 1,771 (4.26%)
19.34% swing LD to UKIP