Robert Jenrick, the Conservative candidate for Newark, addresses the audience in Kelham Hall. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Tories comfortably defeat Ukip in Newark by-election

The party holds the seat with a majority of more than 7,000 as the Lib Dems are pushed into sixth place.

Ukip's forward march has been halted. As polls predicted, the Tories comfortably won the Newark by-election with a reduced majority of 7,403. The party will be relieved at the size of its victory over Ukip, which had hoped to use the momentum from its first-place finish in the European elections to run them close (Nigel Farage last night predicted a Conservative majority of 2,500 at most). Instead, David Cameron enjoys the distinction of being the first Conservative leader since 1989 (when William Hague took Richmond). to win a by-election while in government.

But while Ukip failed to deliver the shock it hoped, its performance shouldn't be dismissed. The party still finished a comfortable second, winning a swing of 15.5 per cent and 25.9 per cent of the vote in a seat that is only the 248th most "Ukip friendly". That this is viewed as a "failure" is a sign of how far it has come. After pouring resources into the constituency, with every Conservative MP ordered to visit three times and David Cameron making four appearances, it would have been remarkable if the Tories had not held the seat. As Chris Bryant, who ran Labour's campaign, said: "They threw the kitchen sink, they threw the butler's sink, they threw the crockery, all the silverware, the Aga, the butler, the home help – everything at it."

Had the party run an alternative candidate to Roger Helmer, whose past comments include describing rape victims as sharing "the blame" and homosexuals as "abnormal and undesirable", it would almost certainly have performed better. One Labour source told me that some voters cast a tactical vote for the Tories to stop Ukip, with one comparing it to voting for Jacques Chirac over Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2002 French presidential election. "Helmer is Hitler," one said. 

Some in Labour will be disappointed to have finished third with just 17.7 per cent of the vote, down from 22.3 per cent in 2010, but after calculating that it could not win, the party consciously choose to fight a modest campaign. For the Lib Dems, it was another dismal night. The party finished sixth, behind the Greens and an independent candidate, with just 2.6 per cent of the vote - one of its worst ever by-election performances - and lost its deposit for the ninth time in this parliament.

It would be wrong to say that Ukip's bubble has burst. The party is still polling at near-record levels in national surveys and will be a force at the general election. But it will be more aware than ever that to shed its status as a party of protest it needs to gain a foothold in Westminster.

Here's the result in full:

Conservative 17,431 45.0% (-8.9%)

Ukip 10,028 25.9% (+22.1%)

Labour 6,842 17.7% (-4.6%)

Paul Baggaley (Independent) 1,891 4.9% (N/A)

Green 1,057 2.7% (N/A)

Liberal Democrat 1,004 2.6% (-17.4%)

Monster Raving Loony Party 168 0.4% (N/A)

Andy Hayes (Independent) 117 0.3% (N/A)

Bus-Pass Elvis Party 87 0.2% (N/A)

Common Good  64 0.2% (N/A)

Patriotic Socialist Party 18 0.1% (N/A)

Majority: 7,403 (19.1%)

Turnout: 38,707 (52.79%)

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.