Ashcroft poll gives the Tories hope they can win Eastleigh in 2015

A new poll from Lord Ashcroft shows seven per cent of Lib Dem voters and 10 per cent of UKIP voters expect to vote Conservative at the general election.

One reason why by-elections are a poor predictor of general election results is that voters behave very differently in the former to the latter. People can vote for the party of their choice secure in the knowledge that only the identity of their MP, not the government of the country, will change. 

With this in mind, a new poll from the ever-prolific Lord Ashcroft (recently profiled by Andrew Gimson for the NS) offers useful evidence of how the result in Eastleigh could change in 2015. It shows that just 43 per cent of Lib Dem supporters in the constituency would vote for the party at the general election, with 13 per cent likely to defect to Labour, seven per cent to the Tories and a third undecided. Similarly, only 43 per cent of current UKIP voters expect to stick with the party in 2015, with 10 per cent planning to vote for the Conservatives.

Encouragingly for the Tories, 73 per cent of their supporters expect to vote for the party in the general election, with 23 per cent undecided. If we strip out the don't knows, the Conservatives enjoy a nine-point lead over the Lib Dems (33-24), with Labour in third place on 24 per cent and UKIP in fourth on 16 per cent. 

Is this strong evidence that the Tories will win Eastleigh in 2015? No, the high number of Lib Dem don't knows (34 per cent), at least half of whom are likely to return to the fold, as well as the small sample size (760) means we should be wary of drawing any conclusions. But on an otherwise dark day for the Tories, the Ashcroft poll gives the party a glimmer of hope. 

Lord Ashcroft at the Conservative conference in Birmingham last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.