The Lib Dems are still on course to hold Eastleigh. Despite the loss of Britain’s AAA credit rating and the unfurling Rennard scandal, Lord Ashcroft’s latest poll today puts their candidate Mike Thornton on 33 per cent. Tory candidate Maria Hutchings is lagging five points behind on 28 per cent while Ukip are a little further behind with 21 per cent. Disappointingly for Ed Miliband, the Labour party’s celebrity candidate John O’Farrell is coming in with just 12 per cent.

This confirms two things. Firstly, the by-election is only about local politics. As we discussed on last week’s View from 22 podcast, Chris Huhne has barely been mentioned on the doorstep. From the start, the Tories were worried the local Lib Dem machine would be impregnable — something that has turned out to be true. Despite being beaten with a flurry of politicians of all shapes and statures, Ashcroft’s polling states that 45 per cent of the Eastleigh voters are most concerned with electing the best local MP. Only 21 per cent consider the by-election a referendum on the coalition.

On the economy, the loss of the AAA rating appears to have also made minimal impact. Or as Owen Jones argued in the Independent yesterday, it could a problem with Labour articulating its message. 57 per cent of those in Eastleigh state they trust Cameron and Osborne to manage the economy in the best interests of Britain, compared to 22 per cent for Miliband and Balls. A significant chunk of Lib Dem voters — 30 per cent — support the later pair, compared to just over half who plumped with Cameron and

The second is James’ prediction on the rise of Ukip is correct. Considering they polled just 3.6 per cent at 2010 election, their rise to 21 per cent is staggering. This is a by-election, so there is still a strong protest vote element. But if the party comes in third place it’s hard to deny that Ukip are still on the rise. There’s a chance Nigel Farage is kicking himself over his decision not to run himself — his persona could have driven them even higher. Judging by the soundbites and newspaper coverage, Farage appears to have been ubiquitous in Eastleigh anyway.

What this by-election has shown is the relative strength of the party machines. On the ground, the Lib Dems have run a determined campaign, while the Tories have been fighting desperately to come in second. According to Ashcroft’s data on voter contact, 37 per cent have had Lib Dems campaigners appear on their doorstep, compared to 30 per cent for the Tories (down 5 per cent from 2010). 18 per cent note phone contact with Tories compared to 28 percent for the Lib Dems.

Ukip have undoubtedly done well but how much is due to their on-the-ground operation vs. the party’s anti-politics credentials? However, as Boris Johnson argued in his column yesterday, Labour are the real losers in Eastleigh. It appears their vote has barely budged from 2010 and Ed Miliband’s southern mission hasn’t got off to a good start.

Tags: Eastleigh by-election 2012, Lord Ashcroft, Polling, UK politics, UKIP