Lib Dems suffer worst-ever by-election result for a major party

The party won just 0.9 per cent of the vote. But it remains confident that it can win where it is incumbent. 

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It is the woes of the Conservatives and Labour that loom largest after last night. The Tories lost Rochester (albeit by a narrower margin than the final polls suggested), a seat they had repeatedly boasted they could win, and Ukip acquired its second MP. Far from losing momentum as the general election approaches, the Farageists are still gaining it. Further Conservative defections, if less likely than some suggest, cannot be ruled out. The schism on the right of British politics looks further than ever from being healed. 

But having long planned to exploit the Tories' tribulations, Labour finds itself embroiled in its own crisis. Emily Thornberry's resignation as shadow attorney general over her ill-judged tweet of a house bearing St George's flags means that disastrous headlines for Ed Miliband are competing this morning with those for David Cameron. 

It would be remiss, however, not to note the apocalyptically bad performance of the Liberal Democrats. They won just 0.9 per cent of the vote in Rochester, a record low for a major party in a by-election (the previous nadir being the 1.4 per cent they polled in Clacton), and lost their deposit for the 11th time in this parliament. A party that once specialised in winning by-elections has become adept at losing them. Activists are only grateful that they narrowly avoided defeat to an independent dominatrix candidate. 

But the party remains more stoical than its subterranean ratings would suggest. While their vote has collapsed to unimaginable lows in some seats, the Lib Dems remain confident that they can hold most of their 56 MPs at the general election. The most significant by-election result for the party in this parliament was that in Eastleigh, where, despite all the obstacles to doing so, they held the seat by nearly 2,000 votes. The victory reflected the Lib Dems' strong local reputation and their still-potent ground game. By maximising the benefits of incumbency, the party could yet retain most of its seats and, even as it falls behind Ukip in vote share, hope to re-enter government in another hung parliament

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.