The opportunities for Cameron and Clegg in Eastleigh are as great as the dangers

Clegg has a chance to prove the Lib Dems won't be wiped out in 2015 and Cameron a chance to show how the Tories could win a majority.

The resignation of Chris Huhne as an MP heralds perhaps the most politically interesting by-election of this parliament. His Eastleigh constituency, just outside Southampton, is that most intriguing thing: a coalition marginal. His majority in 2010 was 3,864 over the Conservatives, with Labour a distant third. While the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland yesterday, set out the "problem for all parties" this by-election poses, it also presents some great opportunities.

Ipsos MORI’s latest poll in January had support for the Liberal Democrats at the lowest level recorded since 1990, on just eight per cent, with UKIP on nine per cent, the highest rating we have ever recorded.  At the other end, Labour had a 13-point lead over the Conservatives. Of course, this is the national picture and locally things can be very different, but it does illustrate the low ebb from which the Liberal Democrats will begin the by-election campaign.

This will be the first time since the formation of the coalition that the two parties will seriously do battle against each other for a Westminster seat. It may well prove a dry run for the general election as we get to see just how the two governing parties will set out their stalls. 

The Lib Dems have held Eastleigh since 1994 when they took the seat from the Conservatives in, appropriately enough, a by-election. At the four general elections since then, the Liberal Democrat majority over the Conservatives has never been more than 4,000. It was high on the Conservatives’ list of target seats in 2010 and will be again in 2015.

The opportunity then presents itself for the Tories to show that they can win seats from the Lib Dems at the next general election. If David Cameron and his party are to win a majority, it is seats like Eastleigh that will need to turn blue. The spoils of victory would bring a much-needed morale boost to the party and help to settle recent rumours of challenges to Cameron's leadership. 

The opportunity for the Lib Dems is also great. Winning a closely fought by-election against the Conservatives would be a huge boon to a party apparently struggling so badly in the polls. It would provide a shot in the arm for members, activists and their leaders. Nick Clegg and his team would have proved that the Liberal Democrats have not been wiped out by forming a coalition with the Conservatives and that they can hold seats at the general election.

For Ed Miliband and Labour the temptation must be to sit back, save valuable resources and watch the Tories and the Lib Dems tie themselves in knots campaigning against each other.

Since the 1994 by-election, when Labour came second, they have been less and less competitive in Eastleigh. In 2010, they won just 9.6 per cent of the vote (compared to the Liberal Democrats’ 46.5 per cent). However, think what a good performance, however unlikely, could do for Labour. Even coming second, as they did in 1994, would surely have Conservative and Liberal Democrat strategists staring at the 2015 drawing board. Miliband, a leader who has not quite convinced his own party's voters yet (only 53 per cent of Labour supporters are satisfied with his leadership compared to 75 per cent of Conservatives for Cameron), would show Labour has gained ground in areas where it was previously uncompetitive. 

In that 1994 by-election a little known Nigel Farage won just 169 more votes than Screaming Lord Sutch. Farage, now leader of UKIP, is being described as the "wildcard" in the 2013 by-election and will undoubtedly have a bigger impact on the results this time around.

But the UKIP leader has yet to decide whether he will run. The perils are obvious, if he runs and loses heavily it would slam the brakes on the momentum he and his party have been building over the last few years. A successful campaign – which does not necessarily just mean victory – would, by contrast, put further wind in the UKIP sails ahead of the general election. Farage may decide the personal risk is too great but still fully back another UKIP candidate. The opportunity for UKIP is to demonstrate that they remain a growing force in British politics.

The prospect of a strong UKIP campaign adds another dimension to the race, and allows political watchers to see the effect it can have on the other parties. We know that 43 per cent of UKIP voters voted for the Conservatives in 2010. So, will UKIP be successful in persuading Conservatives to actually vote for them and in large enough numbers to impact on the result? It is also the first electoral test for the Tories since Cameron’s promise of an in/out EU referendum. How will that impact on UKIP’s support, and what they campaign on? A damp squib of an election for UKIP could well vindicate Cameron’s decision to make the pledge.

In 2010, UKIP won just 3.6 per cent of the vote, but by-elections are unusual and can produce surprise results. Would George Galloway have won in Bradford West last year had it been a general election? Probably not, and it does not necessarily point to further success for the Respect Party in 2015. All of which throws up the prospect of another "unusual" result in Eastleigh which tells us nothing about the next general election.

This by-election is different though. It may not tell us who will win the general election but it will help to shape the narrative for all the parties, either inflating or deflating their political balloons, however temporarily. It will also give us a glimpse into some of the more intriguing aspects of 2015: how will the coalition parties fight each other? What impact will UKIP have on the outcome? Fortune though, favours the brave. There is a great deal to be won in Eastleigh for those who want it.

N.B. It is worth noting that this by-election came about because Chris Huhne asked his wife to take his speeding points; in 2006, 12 per cent of UK drivers said they would ask a friend of relative to take speeding points for them if they were facing a ban. 

Tom Mludzinski is deputy head of politics at Ipsos MORI

For the first time since the coalition was formed, the governing parties will do battle in a Lib Dem-Tory marginal. Photograph: Getty Images.

Tom Mludzinski (@tom_ComRes) is head of political polling at ComRes

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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