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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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