Just under a month before the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election, David Cameron told a Brussels press conference that he wished his Lib Dem coalition partners well in the forthcoming poll. To quote:
Obviously, in a coalition, you always wish your partners well. I think the coalition has worked extremely well. All I would say is, the context of the by-election is the MP elected at the election has been found in court to have told complete untruths about his opponent.
I think that is an extremely important context. In that context, we wish our partners well. They had an extremely tough time. All the unfairnesses and untruths about their candidate – he’s now been exonerated. So of course I wish them well.
We’ll be patrolling the same streets and fighting for the same votes. But I hope that will be done in a slightly more friendly manner than it has in the past.
On the eve of polling, by contrast, the Tory candidate in that by-election insisted he and his party had put everything into the campaign. Kashif Ali told politics.co.uk:
This suggestion that we’re running a soft campaign is a complete nonsense. There’s no truth in it.
And in the wake of a disappointing showing on 13 January that saw the Tory share of the vote drop from 26.4 per cent at the general election to 12.8 per cent (which still did not facilitate a Lib Dem win), senior members of the party insisted that they had given it all they had. One of them was the Tory co-chairman Baroness Warsi, who told the BBC:
It was resourced properly. We had volunteers on the ground. We had professionals on the ground. We had a great local candidate.
But now suspicions that in fact the Tories weren’t really trying appear to have some numerical backing. According to figures disclosed to Newsnight‘s Michael Crick by Oldham Council, the Conservatives spent less than half both Labour and the Lib Dems during the campaign. Indeed, the party spent £4,000 less than Ukip. The breakdown is as follows:
Liberal Democrat: £94,540
As Crick points out, “the Conservatives spent less than 40 per cent of what they were legally entitled to”. And as James Forsyth notes over on the Spectator‘s Coffee House tonight:
These figures show just how absurd it was for the Tories to claim that they were fighting a normal-style by-election campaign. There was clearly a deliberate decision to go easy in the seat to give the Liberal Democrat candidate the best chance possible. Those, like Baroness Warsi, who hotly denied this charge look rather silly this evening.
It seems Cameron’s initial sentiment was closest to the mark, after all.