Cameron faces gargantuan task after Eastleigh defeat
Ukip supporters in Eastleigh yesterday after party candidate Diane James came second in the town's byelection
Analysis:In the early hours of yesterday, Diane James was triumphant as she stood on the stage in the Fleming Park count centre as the results of the Eastleigh byelection in Hampshire were announced. She had not won, however.
James, the UK Independence Party candidate, had come second, nearly 2,000 votes behind the Liberal Democrats’ Michael Thornton. For now, however, second is good enough.
For Conservative prime minister David Cameron, some soul searching is in order: he tried in January to shore up the right of his party with a pledge to hold a referendum on the UK’s European Union membership.
However, it seems to have done little to ease his troubles or to take the wind from the sails of Ukip, which wants the UK to quit the EU, plain and simple.
So, he must decide if he should tack even further to the right, standing, as EU Council president Herman Van Rompuy put it in London on Thursday, even “closer to the door with his coat on” as he seeks changes in the EU.
Many in his ranks want him to do so, though Cameron wants to keep Britain in the union but with more acceptable rules and conditions – a tall order when such an agreement has to be reached with 26 other EU capitals.
The Conservatives chose a Ukip-style candidate to run in Eastleigh in Maria Hutchings, though it then did everything possible to keep her off the airwaves once she had espoused views that most involved already knew she held.
Indeed, the Tories demeaned themselves in the eyes of the Hampshire voters by at one stage issuing party literature, complete with Hutchings’s picture, in the Ukip colours.
Everyone involved will draw lessons from Eastleigh – the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, Labour and Ukip – though, if history is anything to go by, many of them will be the wrong ones.
Buoyed by the result, the Lib Dems believe that their “fortress” Commons seats – buttressed by years of diligent, often vicious campaigning on the ground – can withstand the gale to come in 2015.
Eastleigh is special
Eastleigh, however, is special, even in the Lib Dems’ lexicon: the party holds 40 of the 44 seats on the local borough council. The result calms nerves after a dreadful couple of weeks in the wake of unproven allegations of misconduct towards female candidates made against the party’s former chief executive Chris Rennard, which he denies.
Defeat in Eastleigh could easily have resulted in a leadership crisis within the party, if not a challenge — particularly at next month’s spring conference, for which a motion is down urging changes to election rules for the top job. Now, party leader Nick Clegg can go before the conference to argue coalition does not automatically guarantee doom for the smaller party.
For Ukip leader Nigel Farage, Eastleigh offers sight of the Promised Land: seats in the House of Commons. His party, he said, was no longer a receptacle just for protest votes.
On this, he is right: the anti-politician sentiment sweeping Europe, exemplified by the rise of Beppe Grillo in Italy, is there to be exploited in the UK – even if it is more difficult to do so because of its first-past-the-post voting system.