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
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The Home Office made Theresa May. But it could still destroy her

Even politicians who leave the Home Office a success may find themselves dogged by it. 

Good morning. When Theresa May left the Home Office for the last time, she told civil servants that there would always be a little bit of the Home Office inside her.

She meant in terms of its enduring effect on her, but today is a reminder of its enduring ability to do damage on her reputation in the present day.

The case of Jamal al-Harith, released from Guantanamo Bay under David Blunkett but handed a £1m compensation payout under Theresa May, who last week died in a suicide bomb attack on Iraqi forces in Mosul, where he was fighting on behalf of Isis. 

For all Blunkett left in the wake of a scandal, his handling of the department was seen to be effective and his reputation was enhanced, rather than diminished, by his tenure. May's reputation as a "safe pair of hands" in the country, as "one of us" on immigration as far as the Conservative right is concerned and her credibility as not just another headbanger on stop and search all come from her long tenure at the Home Office. 

The event was the cue for the Mail to engage in its preferred sport of Blair-bashing. It’s all his fault for the payout – which in addition to buying al-Harith a house may also have fattened the pockets of IS – and the release. Not so fast, replied Blair in a punchy statement: didn’t you campaign for him to be released, and wasn’t the payout approved by your old pal Theresa May? (I paraphrase slightly.)

That resulted in a difficult Q&A for Downing Street’s spokesman yesterday, which HuffPo’s Paul Waugh has posted in full here. As it was May’s old department which has the job of keeping tabs on domestic terror threats the row rebounds onto her. 

Blair is right to say that every government has to “balance proper concern for civil liberties with desire to protect our security”. And it would be an act of spectacular revisionism to declare that Blair’s government was overly concerned with civil liberty rather than internal security.

Whether al-Harith should never have been freed or, as his family believe, was picked up by mistake before being radicalised in prison is an open question. Certainly the journey from wrongly-incarcerated fellow traveller to hardened terrorist is one that we’ve seen before in Northern Ireland and may have occurred here.

Regardless, the presumption of innocence is an important one but it means that occasionally, that means that someone goes on to commit crimes again. (The case of Ian Stewart, convicted of murdering the author Helen Bailey yesterday, and who may have murdered his first wife Diane Stewart as well, is another example of this.)

Nonetheless, May won’t have got that right every time. Her tenure at the Home Office, so crucial to her reputation as a “safe pair of hands”, may yet be weaponised by a clever rival, whether from inside or outside the Conservative Party. 

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