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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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.