Mark Reckless has won the Rochester and Strood by-election with a majority of 2,920 (7.3 per cent). He received 16,867 votes to the Tories’ 13,947. Although not the 12- or 15-point lead standout polls in recent weeks have suggested, it is a decisive victory and sees Ukip elect its second MP in under two months.
Here are the full results:
Ukip: 16,867 (42 per cent)
Conservatives: 13,947 (35 per cent)
Labour: 6,713 (17 per cent)
Greens: 1,692 (4 per cent)
Lib Dems: 349 (1 per cent)
Turnout was 50.67 per cent.
So what does this mean for Westminster?
This is undeniably a spectacular triumph for the party, in spite of the fact that the Tories could still squeak the seat back again next May. Its success also overshadows any suggestions about the difficulty of having such differing individuals as Mark Reckless, Douglas Carswell and Nigel Farage as the party’s figureheads, or the assertion that Ukip needs a Labour defector to prove it’s not “more Tory than the Tories”, as Labour suggests. In the bigger picture, Ukip have had two MPs elected in two months. This is an astonishingly good result for a small party five months before a general election
All Ukip needs to do now is try to pluck a few more defectors from the Tory (or Labour) ranks, get the vote out in the constituencies where they are already taking hold, and keep up the momentum, and we could see some highly unusual results come the general election. Remember, this is only Ukip’s 271st target seat.
The Tories have done their very best to “price in” a Ukip victory, to avoid the result coming as a nasty shock, and have slowly but surely turned the “kitchen sink” taps off in recent weeks. I’ve heard from insiders that this strategy, coupled with the quaking confidence in Ed Miliband as leader on the Labour side, means the majority of Tory MPs would rather not see this result as a time to question David Cameron’s leadership. After all, he continues to poll ahead of his party.
However, the Tories have suffered a huge blow. It was thought at first that this was a seat the Tories could win, and Reckless was a figure they could humiliate in the process: “I will be with you in Rochester campaigning with you. I am absolutely determined that we will take this seat,” Cameron told activists at the time of Reckless’ defection.
Another government figure was quoted a few weeks ago saying, “losing is not an option”, and a usually loyal Tory MP told me before the result: “Rochester is very different to Clacton, it’s got more of a commuter belt feel, lots of people in work, more classically Conservative. There is no excuse to lose it.”
The Mail ran a story in October reporting “there’ll be 46 names” – the number required to trigger a leadership contest – of Tory MPs who would call for Cameron to go in the event of a defeat in Rochester. Although this looks unlikely in the short term, it will lead to further rumblings among an already near-mutinous faction of backbenchers, some of whom could well be tempted to defect.
That the Tories could be in with a chance of winning the seat back next May will be cold comfort, at least for the next few weeks.
Labour’s vote plummeted down to 16.8 per cent, down 11.7 per cent, in a seat that it used to hold (albeit before a boundary change) before 2010.
Yet in spite of a disappointing result, this by-election should broadly have been a good news story for Labour. As I reported from Rochester yesterday, the party was hoping against hope for a big Ukip win to knock Cameron, and indeed some strategists see the “only way” to win in 2015 now is for Cameron to experience a crisis in his party.
However, Labour managed to turn the sure-fire bad day for the Tories into a marginally better one for them by reacting disproportionately strongly to a Twitter storm created by its MP Emily Thornberry, who tweeted a picture of a white van outside a house adorned with England flags when out campaigning. The leadership decided she should resign from her position in the shadow cabinet. So her resignation then dominated the political narrative – which was flagging by this stage, as journalists bedded in for a long wait for the by-election result.
Labour has also been criticised for failing to help its candidate Naushabah Khan, widely thought to be an impressive figure, sufficiently in the build-up to the vote. Even if the party put more legwork in than has been reported, this by-election has still highlighted a gulf between Labour HQ and its ground troops, as well as the furore over Thornberry’s tweet showing a deeper ideological divide between Labour’s “beer drinkers” and “wine drinkers”. The party will have to bridge this divide, as Ukip very overtly is moving in on its voters. A notable line in Reckless’ victory speech was: “It is not Ed Miliband but Ukip that represents the concerns of working men and women.”
No, they didn’t pick up a huge number of votes, but they did rather significantly beat the Lib Dems, and on top of this, Reckless’ success is a good thing for the Green party. Its leader, Natalie Bennett, told me the rise of Ukip – specifically its election of MPs – has “opened things up” for people who once assumed that voting for smaller parties wouldn’t see results. So Ukip putting paid to the “wasted vote” argument, coupled with the Greens having greater potential support than Ukip, as George reported, means this by-election is another indirect boost for the Greens.
11th deposit lost, and a thoroughly dejected candidate in Geoff Juby. They suffered a record low by gaining only 0.9 per cent of the vote. The Lib Dems’ coalition with the Conservatives continues to take its toll. It will be tough but the Lib Dems will have to give a lot of love to their grassroots for a very long time to recover from such lows. The ground war is what they’re best at though, so maybe in time, with a new leader, it’ll happen. But if they continue to console themselves that all that matters is that they may will still hold the balance of power under Nick Clegg come the next election, they risk continuing to ignore their ailing vote.