Cameron faces revolt over result of byelection
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg congratulates party candidate Michael Thornton on winning the Eastleigh byelection yesterday. photograph: stefan rousseau
British prime minister David Cameron is facing revolt from Conservative backbenchers over the party’s third-place finish in a significant byelection, following charges that he is out of touch and has abandoned blue-collar workers.
So far, however, Mr Cameron’s highest-profile opponents, such as David Davies, the man he beat for the leadership eight years ago, have held their silence over the Eastleigh result, but this could change in coming days.
One MP, Stewart Jackson, who quit as a ministerial aide over Mr Cameron’s attitude to the European Union last year, said the prime minister has just months to convince voters that the Conservatives can win a majority in the next general election.
“He is out of touch with the party. Both gay marriage and EU migration feed into a narrative that too much emphasis is going to the liberal metropolitan elite and not enough to the blue-collar working vote that Margaret Thatcher had the support of,” Mr Jackson declared.
Meanwhile, another MP, Eleanor Laing, was equally critical: “Loyalty is a two-way thing and the leadership of the Conservative Party asks for loyalty from our supporters but those supporters don’t feel that they’re getting loyalty back.”
So far, talk of leadership challenges have been little more than sabre-rattling by the ambitious and disaffected but there is little doubt a poor result in local election battles in England in May could spur rebellion.
Leading Eurosceptic MP Douglas Carswell said Mr Cameron’s concentration on issues such as legalising gay marriage had angered the Conservatives’ traditional support base: “Don’t alienate base in return for pundit applause. Pundits don’t have many votes,” he declared.
In particular, Conservatives are demanding that home secretary Theresa May and work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan-Smith take action now to head off migration by Bulgarians and Romanians once EU travel restrictions are lifted.
However, the levers available to both ministers are limited, while the numbers who might migrate to the UK are unknown.
The possibility that large numbers could do so is beginning to attain totemic status in British political circles.
The Liberal Democrats’ holding of the seat vacated by former cabinet minister Chris Huhne, who resigned after pleading guilty to perverting the course of justice, has copper-fastened the existence of the coalition between Mr Cameron and his junior coalition partners.
However, it has infuriated Conservative backbenchers who despise it: “I’d like him to draw the conclusion that the sooner we get out of this coalition the better,” said one of the leading anti-coalitionists, Peter Bone.
Such tempers were not eased by Conservative Party deputy chairman MP Sarah Newton’s declaration that the Liberal Democrats’ victory was good as “the coalition has kept a seat despite all the difficulties facing the Liberal Democrats, and the coalition”.
The Eastleigh byelection result and the second-place finish by the UK Independence Party has awakened Conservative fears that Mr Cameron’s January pledge to hold a referendum on EU membership has not halted the populist party’s rise in the polls.
However, a detailed poll by Conservative strategist Lord Michael Ashcroft of Eastleigh voters indicates that the European Union was a far less significant issue than some Conservatives want to believe.
Instead, the swing towards Ukip in the final days is explained by the desire of some voters to declare their unhappiness with the party that they previously supported at the 2010 general election, or because they are simply unhappy with all of the major parties.
If the Conservatives are glum, the Liberal Democrats are ecstatic: “This has been a byelection that we’ve had to fight in exceptionally difficult circumstances,” the party’s leader, Nick Clegg, told celebrating supporters yesterday morning in Eastleigh.
“Our opponents have thrown everything at us. We’ve held our nerve, stood our ground, we’ve worked as a team. We went out and campaigned on every doorstep.
“We overcame the odds and won a stunning victory,” he declared.
His candidate, local councillor Michael Thornton, won 13,342 votes, compared with 11,571 for Ukip’s Diane James, while the Conservatives’ Maria Hutchings was more than a thousand behind with 10,559.
Reflecting the new-found optimism in Liberal Democrat ranks, party president Tim Farron said: “ MPs, who perhaps were a little bit worried, are now thinking, ‘We can win our seats next time round.’
“This totally changes the narrative of politics within the coalition.”