Disaster for Cameron as Lib Dems win Eastleigh and UKIP beat the Tories

The PM faces a backlash after the Lib Dems win the by-election and the Tories finish behind UKIP in third place.

Let the Tory crisis begin. The result has just been declared in Eastleigh, where the Lib Dems have won with a reduced majority of 1,771 (4.26%) and where, disastrously for David Cameron, UKIP has finished second. A by-election that Cameron needed to win to convince his backbenchers that their party can achieve outright victory in 2015 has ended with the Tories finishing more than a thousand votes behind Nigel Farage's outfit. Coming second in a constituency where the Lib Dems hold all 36 council seats would have been allowable but to finish third, after a well-resourced campaign, is a terrible outcome.

For Clegg, the result will come as a considerable relief. Had the party lost the seat after earlier leading in the polls, it is his handling of the Rennard scandal that would have been blamed. That the outcome was a comfortable Lib Dem win is proof of the adage that "all politics is local". Voters were more concerned with the proposed gravel pit than they were with the disgrace of Chris Huhne or the allegations against Lord Rennard. Ironically, the result owed much to the "pavement politics" pioneered by the party's former chief executive.

The result is one of the biggest boosts to Clegg's leadership since the formation of the coalition. For once, he goes into his party's spring conference with something to celebrate. By holding Eastleigh in the most unpropitious circumstances, the Lib Dems have upset the assumption that they face wipeout in 2015. The Conservatives' hopes of a majority rest on the belief that they can take as many as 20 seats off Clegg's party (half of the Tories' 40 target seats are Lib Dem-held) but tonight's result significantly undermines that strategy. It is becoming ever harder to see how the Tories will improve on their 2010 performance.

For Labour, which finished a poor fourth, the result is a major disappointment. Having chosen to fight to win, rather than concede the seat to the Lib Dems, it saw its share of the vote increase by a mere 0.22 per cent. The hope was that Eastleigh would demonstrate the progress the party has made in the south, where, outside of London, it holds just 10 seats out of a possible 197. Instead, it has shown how much further it has to go before it can truly claim to be a "one nation" force. The only consolation for Ed Miliband is that the Tories' humiliation means all the attention will be on Cameron.

The big winner of the evening was UKIP, which saw its share of the vote dramatically increase from 3.6 per cent to 27.8 per cent, and finished just 1,771 votes behind the Lib Dems. The party still hasn't won a seat but it is getting closer and many will reasonably ask whether, had he stood, Nigel Farage would now be Westminster's newest MP.

Here's the result in full.

Mike Thornton (Liberal Democrat) 13,342 (32.06%, -14.48%)

Diane James (UKIP) 11,571 (27.80%, +24.20%)

Maria Hutchings (Conservative) 10,559 (25.37%, -13.96%)

John O'Farrell (Labour) 4,088 (9.82%, +0.22%)

Danny Stupple (Independent) 768 (1.85%, +1.56%)

Dr Iain Maclennan (National Health Action Party) 392 (0.94%)

Ray Hall (Beer, Baccy and Crumpet Party) 235 (0.56%)

Kevin Milburn (Christian Party) 163 (0.39%)

Howling Laud Hope (Monster Raving Loony Party) 136 (0.33%)

Jim Duggan (Peace Party) 128 (0.31%)

David Bishop (Elvis Loves Pets) 72 (0.17%)

Michael Walters (English Democrats) 70 (0.17%, -0.30%)

Daz Procter (Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts) 62 (0.15%)

Colin Bex (Wessex Regionalist) 30 (0.07%)

Liberal Democrat majority 1,771 (4.26%, -2.94%)

Turnout: 41,616 52.8% (-12,034, -16.5%)

Swing: 19.34% Liberal Democrat to UKIP

UKIP candidate Diane James is joined by party leader Nigel Farage as they celebrate beating the Conservatives to second place in the Eastleigh by-election. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. 

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