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
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496