Eastleigh is now even more of a must-win for the Tories

The Huhne and Rennard scandals mean defeat will be portrayed as a humiliating set-back for Cameron.

Last week the Tories were increasingly resigned to defeat in the Eastleigh by-election but the Rennard allegations, combined with a poll (conducted before the story broke) putting them four points ahead of the Lib Dems, have given the party renewed hope of winning the seat. The odds on a Lib Dem victory have lengthened, while those on a Conservative victory have narrowed. 

My sense, however, is that the Rennard story, like the Huhne scandal, will have little effect on the outcome. As one Lib Dem tells the Times today, "If Chris Huhne lying isn’t going to derail us then a peer that very few people have heard of is not going to harm us". Nick Clegg was almost certainly right when he suggested this morning that local issues such as planning would continue to dominate. 

But this doesn't alter the fact that Eastleigh is now even more of a must-win seat for the Tories. The Huhne and Rennard scandals, notwithstanding their limited influence on voters, give the press every excuse they need to portray any defeat as a humiliating set-back for Cameron. In such circumstances, the only consolation for the Tories will be that Labour, which is set to finish in fourth place behind UKIP, will face some tough questions of its own.

No one ever expected Labour, which polled just nine per cent in Eastleigh at the general election, to win the seat. The swing required would put the party on course for a majority of 362. But as the only large opposition party, not least one which claims to be a "one nation" force, it should be performing much better midway through the parliament. 

David Cameron sits alongside Conservative Eastleigh by-election candidate Maria Hutchings during a Q&A session with workers in the constituency. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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