Why the Lib Dems are confident they can win the Eastleigh by-election

Lib Dem activists point out that the party has gained seats in recent local elections.

Conservative MPs are already talking up their party's chances in the Eastleigh by-election triggered by Chris Huhne's resignation, with one, Alec Shelbrooke, describing it as "an early opportunity to exact revenge on the Lib Dems over boundaries". The Tories have no intention of going easy on their coalition partner; this is a must-win seat for them. 

Given how poorly the Lib Dems are polling nationally and the slimness of their majority (3,864), it's unsurprising that many expect a Tory victory. But Lib Dem activists are confident that they can hang on. They point out that the party has actually gained seats in recent local elections, increasing its majority on Eastleigh Borough Council from 34 seats to 36 in May 2012 (the Lib Dems hold 40 to the Tories' four). The Lib Dems, who plan to treat the next general election as 57 by-elections, have long argued that they will lose fewer seats than expected in 2015 because their vote is holding up in key local strongholds. The by-election will be an early test of this claim. 

It is no less of a test for the Tories, whose hopes of winning a majority in 2015 depend on them taking a  large number of seats off the Lib Dems. The party has included 20 Lib Dem MPs on its 2015 target list of 40 in the belief that they will prove easier to dislodge than their Labour counterparts. Were the list purely based on the swing required, only nine would appear. But if the Tories fail to win Eastleigh, even after the sitting MP has been forced to resign in disgrace, a Conservative majority in 2015 will begin to look impossible. 

The Liberal Democrats increased their majority on Eastleigh Borough Council from 36 seats to 38 in May 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.