Tories under pressure after finishing third to Lib Dems and UKIP in Eastleigh
The Conservatives suffered a humiliating defeat this morning in the Eastleigh by-election, finishing third behind the Liberal Democrats and the UK Independence Party.
The result is particularly embarrassing given that the Tories began the campaign with a 3-point lead according to a survey conducted by Lord Ashcroft on 4th and 5th February.
The by-election was called following Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne’s admission that he had perverted the course of justice in relation to speeding points on his driving license, forcing him to resign.
It has been a damaging month for the Lib Dems, with allegations of sexual assault made against Lord Rennard in addition to Huhne’s resignation.
Despite this, they managed to hold on to the Eastleigh seat with 32% of the vote, down 14 points from 2010.
The fact that the Lib Dems managed to just hold on, offers a small respite for their beleaguered leader, Nick Clegg, who described it as a “stunning victory” in “exceptionally difficult circumstances”.
UKIP were the real winners, with their candidate Diane James getting 28% of the vote, which represents a considerable 19.3% swing from the Lib Dems.
This surge for UKIP was indicative of a wider trend with the party now third, ahead of the Lib Dems, in the latest national polls according to ComRes data.
UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, said this was “not a freak result. Something is changing…we have really connected with the voters”.
Finishing third with 25% of the vote was Conservative candidate Maria Hutchings. When confronted with reporters asking about her failure to capitalise on the circumstances, she presented a wall of silence.
David Cameron will not, however, be able to simply ignore the serious questions that will be asked about the direction of the Conservative party in the lead up to the general election.
Eastleigh is a marginal seat that is seen as essential for them if they harbour serious hopes of forming a majority government in the next parliament.
What is perhaps most worrying for David Cameron is the scale of the so-called “protest vote” for UKIP, despite his bullish rhetoric towards Brussels, increasing focus on immigration and his promise of a referendum on Europe, all of which he had hoped would diminish UKIP’s appeal.
Cameron described the result as a “protest…that’s what happens at by-elections” but conceded “it’s disappointing”.