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%)