Tories have spring in their step after Newark byelection
Farage now facing charge that Ukip has passed high-water mark
Conservative party candidate Robert Jenrick and wife Michal leave Kelham Hall in Newark yesterday after winning the Newark byelection. Photograph: Reuters/Luke MacGregor
Roger Helmer looked just a little crestfallen yesterday as he stood outside the UK Independence Party’s campaign headquarters in Newark in Nottinghamshire.
Just a few hours earlier, as dawn broke, he had conceded defeat at the hands of the Conservatives’ Robert Jenrick in a byelection that has transfixed Westminster insiders for weeks.
“Well, you promised an earthquake, it was more a slight tremor, wasn’t it?” a middle- aged woman told Helmer, with just a hint of bile. “We’re happy, we’re happy,” Helmer replied.
In the end, Jenrick – nicknamed “Generic” by reporters because of his stultifying caution – won by 7,000 votes over Helmer (70), while Labour was 10,000 behind.
Two weeks ago, after European elections where Ukip won the most seats and the most votes, the Conservatives would have taken such a result with gratitude.
Ten days out, Ukip believed it had a chance. Even late on Thursday it believed that the Conservative margin of victory could be kept to a couple of thousand. Now, Ukip leader Nigel Farage will have to bat off charges – some genuinely made, some merely orchestrated – that his “people’s army” has passed its high-water mark.
In truth, however, Newark should never have been a contender for a Ukip surprise: it was the Conservatives’ 44th safest seat and just number 258 on Ukip’s own list of targets.
However, Ukip must start learning lessons: Jenrick, for example, was selected to run by the Conservatives last November; Helmer was chosen days after Patrick Mercer resigned in late April.
The next byelection could be in South Cambridgeshire, if David Cameron selects his former health secretary, Andrew Lansley, to be the UK’s European commissioner.
MPs have not usually been chosen for the Brussels job since the commission changeover comes in the final years of a parliament when all governments face rumblings, so Lansley’s hopes could fall. Nevertheless, the new commission starts in December.
Unlike in Ireland, Commons constituencies are not left vacant for long. “Trying to avoid a byelection wouldn’t be tenable,” says Farage, but there is no sign yet that Ukip is preparing, just in case, for battle in South Cambridgeshire. The Conservative majority there is 6,000 smaller than it was in Newark.
In Newark, Conservative canvassers went out armed with detailed information on every street and hamlet. Too often, Ukip flew blind, trusting in luck.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives have learned from their disastrous campaign in Eastleigh in Hampshire 18 months ago, where they came third behind the Liberal Democrats and Ukip.
Conservative MPs were told to go to Newark three times; cabinet ministers came five times, prime minister David Cameron, extraordinarily, came four times.
Each MP brought their people; some attracted by the prospect of knocking on doors with the party’s big beasts, such as William Hague and Theresa May.
On Thursday, 100 Conservatives MPs arrived for a last-minute “Get Out The Vote” drive – offering echoes of the best Liberal Democrat byelection campaigns of the past.
Ironically, the sharper Conservative operation stood in marked contrast to the Liberal Democrats. In 2010, they took 20 per cent of the vote. This time, they took just 2.6 per cent and lost their deposit.
Just as significantly, not a single Liberal Democrat MP bothered to help candidate David Watts, who could think only of one former MP who had showed up.
Most interestingly, some in the Nottinghamshire constituency who had previously voted Labour or Liberal Democrats voted Conservative to block Ukip.
Cameron will pray that that habit is replicated next May in some of his key target seats, since the Conservatives cannot manage a Newark-style campaign everywhere.
However, he cannot bank on that often since there will be only a handful, if that, where a straight choice between the Conservatives and Ukip can be realistically predicted now.
Newark has supplied confidence to the Conservatives – even if
Helmer warned some of their MPs defending 6,000 majorities that they should sleep uneasily.
Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne matched caution with glee yesterday, praising the Conservative “team effort” and seizing on the paltry 6,000 votes won by Labour.
People respond to “a plan”, he said, “and if you don’t have that, if you don’t have leadership, you don’t have a plan, you pay the price for that.”