So now that the polls have closed in Eastleigh, here are the likely scenarios for tonight’s Eastleigh by-election result, and what each combination will mean:
2. Liberal Democrats
It’s stating the obvious that this is the best outcome for David Cameron, showing that the Tories can win in those target Lib Dem seats, and that they can beat a confident UKIP, no matter what grumpy backbenchers say. But it’s a disaster for Nick Clegg: in fact, any scenario other than victory is a disaster for Nick Clegg.
For Nigel Farage, coming third when his party has been so confident, particularly in the last 24 hours, about a surge in support, will be a dampener, but it will also confirm that he was right to not have stood himself and face a second defeat in the same constituency.
1. Liberal Democrats
Coming second for Cameron would be a blow as it would suggest that Grant Shapps’ strategy of targeting Lib Dem seats is going to be harder to accomplish than originally thought, given this by-election was triggered by one Lib Dem scandal and overshadowed by another. The Tories will need to develop the same kind of on-the-ground intelligence in these Lib Dem constituencies that gave Clegg’s party the advantage in this by-election. But it wouldn’t be as big a blow as it could have been, given David Davis’ remarks on the Daily Politics yesterday. Davis said:
‘I think if we came third, it would be a crisis. I think that’s the case, and if it’s a close second with UKIP on our tail it will also be uncomfortable. Let’s be clear, it’s not going to dislodge David Cameron, he’s going to be there until the next election, but the simple truth is that it will make things more uncomfortable in the House of Commons.’
So unwittingly Davis has given the party leadership some leeway as coming second might be annoying but it isn’t a crisis.
1. Liberal Democrats
Good for Clegg, crisis for Cameron, victory for Nigel Farage, who will give the Tories the fright of their life. Expect open revolt in the Conservative party, and calls from backbenchers to move policy further to the right, even if the maths shows that UKIP bled protest votes from all the parties rather than right-leaning Tories.
2. Liberal Democrats
Farage would say this (still reasonably unlikely but no impossible: remember Galloway’s Bradford West victory) scenario shows how polls and the media continually underestimate UKIP. Those who are arguing that Farage would be kicking himself all the way to 2015 if UKIP won this seat forget the effect that this victory would have on the party. It wouldn’t just be a one-man band, led by the media-savvy Farage with a band of unruly activists running behind him. Many have remarked on how slick and professional Diane James is. She holds her own among the other candidates, and this is a good move for UKIP as it shows the party doesn’t have to resort to fielding ‘fruitcakes’ as Cameron would call them. Plus Farage could ride on the crest of UKIP’s success into another seat in 2015, without the nerves of being the first from his party to make a serious attempt at doing so.
This would terrify the Conservatives. Not only would they have failed to win one of their target Lib Dem seats after two scandals, they will have lost it to a party that ostensibly sits on their right, even if UKIP has stolen votes from all parties as a protest party as much as anything else. There is also, in any scenario other than Tory victory, the sense that the Conservatives need to accept that their selection process for the A-list was significantly flawed. Maria Hutchings is an A-list candidate, yet has struggled in the media spotlight. She might have been a good 2015 candidate, without the concentrated attention, the endless shadowing by sketchwriters and high-profile radio hustings. But the A-list was supposed to comprise accomplished performers and talented individuals who could boost the party. There may well be a debate after Eastleigh about whether this method really worked.
It would send the Liberal Democrats into meltdown. Anything other than a Lib Dem victory in Eastleigh will be a disaster for Nick Clegg, unlike Cameron who has a small amount of leeway. For the Lib Dems to lose Eastleigh when all its council wards are represented by Lib Dems, and particularly given their confidence today, would cause their party leader no end of grief ahead of the spring conference next weekend as activists and MPs would start to wonder which seats they really do stand a chance of holding in 2015. It would also lead to a great deal of further discussion about the timing of the Rennard allegations.
As for Labour, they’re not in any of those lists, which is in itself significant. The party has been pushing the line for a while now that it expects to come fourth, which seems to have worked well as an expectation management strategy as little attention has been paid to the significance of this result for Labour. Labour coming 4th a few months after the launch of Ed Miliband’s One Nation does not bode well for the party’s southern mission. If the party finds itself lurking anywhere near 10 per cent of the vote, this attempt to gain seats in the South looks even more shaky. Don’t forget that this isn’t a typical Home Counties seat with a Tory incumbent and the Lib Dems in second. Labour came second in this constituency in 1994, John Denham is the neighbouring MP, Eastleigh is an industrialised part of Hampshire, and instead of stealing Lib Dem voters, the party is losing support from its own patch to UKIP.
And though there has been significant expectation management from Ed Miliband’s camp, the party hasn’t exactly relaxed on the campaigning front. It made a big play of its 10p tax band and mansion tax policy, even managing to frighten the Lib Dems into dithering over where they stand on quite the dullest of opposition day votes. And the party parachuted its own ‘A-list’-style candidate into the seat, but with little effect.