Samuel Kerr says the Conservatives must learn lessons from Eastleigh if they are to have any chance of victory in 2015.
The Liberal Democrat victory in Eastleigh represents a significant triumph for Nick Clegg at a time when his leadership was being questioned by many in his own party. The ever rumbling Rennard scandal, combined with gaffes on the mansion tax, and steadily declining national poll numbers, had made it seem that the Deputy Prime Minister’s days were numbered. However, a narrow win on the south coast has put some of the doubts about Mr Clegg to bed – at least for now.
For the other two main-party leaders, Eastleigh was an unmitigated disaster. David Cameron faced the humiliating reality that, despite his best efforts on Europe, he is still losing serious ground to UKIP. Nigel Farage’s party is fast becoming the acceptable face of the right and voters who have felt alienated by the Tory’s social liberalism have rushed to join his camp. It shows that people still regard UKIP as a better alternative on Europe. It also suggests that the strategy of targeting Lib Dem seats in order to win a majority in 2015 is going to be an uphill struggle that is looking less and less likely as the slow march towards the next general election trundles on.
Equally worrying is the fact that many Conservatives seem not to have taken the significance of Eastleigh on board. Michael Gove has said that the party will not change any of its policies in the wake of the result, whilst Grant Schapps took to Radio 4 attacking Labour without offering any reflection on how his own party should react.
For Ed Milliband, the result put to bed the fallacy that the Lib Dem’s role in the Coalition will make them easy targets for Labour. At 9.82% of the vote, Labour were not seen as a credible alternative in this contest. If Ed Milliband is to gain a majority at the next general election, he will have to do better in seats on the south coast and in ‘middle England’ generally.
The biggest winner of the day was undoubtedly UKIP who garnered an astonishing 28% of the vote. UKIP are becoming more and more credible with each passing month and are starting to look electorally dangerous to the main parties. It is now far from being beyond the realms of possibility that UKIP could win numerous of seats at the next general election.
If you were to ask me now what the result will be in 2015, I would have to respond with another hung parliament. However, instead of the Liberal Democrats, it is becoming a real possibility that a party like UKIP could be new coalition partners for the Conservatives. This is a prospect that many on the Tory right will celebrate and, by the same token, one that the left of the party will despair at. A Tory-UKIP coalition would put a dramatic end to Cameron’s agenda of social liberalism and would undoubtedly hasten a possible exit from the EU. But this is all conjecture – by-elections are always a time for protest votes and this may be why UKIP had such a strong showing at Eastleigh.
Yet this does not hide the fact that the Prime Minister is beginning to have serious problems with the right of his party, and with voters who previously would not have considered voting for anyone but a Tory. If David Cameron cannot reverse this trend at the next general election, then there is a decent chance that he will not be resident in Downing Street following the next election.
If the Conservatives had indeed managed to pull off a coup by winning in Eastleigh, then many would have said that the party’s social policies had made them more attractive to new voters. This did not happen and David Cameron is now staring down the barrel of electoral defeat in 2015 if he cannot win back swathes of his core voters.
All in all, Eastleigh was a brilliant day for Nigel, a good day for Nick, a bad day for Ed and an abysmal day for Cameron. A week, however, is a lifetime in politics and the two and a half years that roughly stand between now and the next general election is an eternity. There is time for the Conservatives to have a reversal of fortune but they must begin this process now.