Labour will listen and learn but Eastleigh was a disaster for David Cameron

It will terrify Cameron that even after making so many concessions to the right, the Tories were still beaten by UKIP.

No one who saw the scrum of photographers surrounding the Tories' defeated Eastleigh candidate Maria Hutchings, could have been in any doubt about how significant a catastrophe Thursday's by-election defeat was for David Cameron. In assessing the significance and cause of the Conservatives' demise it's worth reminding ourselves of the lessons that emerge from this election and what it means for One Nation Labour.

The Eastleigh by-election was a tough fight for the dedicated Labour activists who worked so hard over the past three weeks for John O'Farrell. Any by-election in which you start in third is a tough ask, particularly when it's your 258th target seat. This was a very different seat from Corby, where we captured a key marginal from the Conservatives. John O'Farrell fought the odds in an excellent campaign and his result bears comparison with by-elections past. I want to thank everybody who made the trip to deepest Hampshire to help him. It says much about the enthusiasm for John's candidacy and Ed Miliband's One Nation message that people came from across Britain (and particularly the south east) to support the campaign.

The real story of yesterday's result, however, is the failure of David Cameron's Conservatives. The conditions could not have been more favourable for them to beat the Lib Dems - this was their 16th most winnable Liberal Democrat seat. The by-election was triggered by Chris Huhne standing down in disgrace after pleading guilty to a criminal offence. Coming third behind the Liberal Democrats and UKIP was clearly a disaster for the Conservatives and their hopes at the next general election in 2015.

This by-election was a test of Cameron's judgement and on that count he failed. It will terrify him that, after making so many concessions to those on the right of his party by offering an EU referendum, a campaign focused on immigration and a candidate who - horribly exposed under the scrutiny of a by-election - wanted to leave the EU and opposed same sex marriage, he was still beaten into third place by UKIP. In the battle on the ground, the small band of Conservative foot soldiers appeared out of touch with voters on issues like living standards and fairness.

However, whilst our result stands favourable comparison with many by-elections of the past in seats where parties have started as long shots, this result shows that we need to redouble our efforts to reach out to every part of the country, including areas where Labour hasn't traditionally been strong.

Labour listened to voters on the doorstep, and we will learn from what they told us. All mainstream political parties need to take seriously the concerns people have about the country, whether it is the cost of living, fairness or immigration. Under Ed Miliband's leadership, Labour is determined to meet those concerns.

But we should be in no doubt - this was a disaster for David Cameron. If he can't win a seat like Eastleigh, the Tories will be very worried that he can't win the other seats they need at the next general election in 2015.

Toby Perkins MP was Labour’s campaign manager in Eastleigh

David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street in London on 27 February, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Toby Perkins is Labour MP for Chesterfield and shadow minister for small business

Photo: Getty
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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

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