Eastleigh by-election: Ukip inflicts major setback on David Cameron
The UK Independence Party has inflicted a major political setback on David Cameron by beating the Conservatives into third place in the Eastleigh by-election.
By James Kirkup, and Rowena Mason TELEGRAPH
6:54AM GMT 01 Mar 2013
Ukip came second in Eastleigh as the Liberal Democrats hung onto the seat despite recent allegations of a sex scandal involving a senior party figure.
Being defeated by both their coalition partners and Ukip will add to the growing doubts that the Conservatives can win the next general election.
Eastleigh is one of the Conservatives’ target seats and the party has flooded the seat with MPs over the last weeks, hoping to seize a constituency won by the Lib Dems in 2010.
But the final results, announced after 2am this morning, showed that the Lib Dems had held on and that Ukip had inflicted a huge symbolic blow to the Conservatives.
Maria Hutchings, the Conservative candidate got 10,559 votes, or 25.4 per cent.
Labour’s John O’Farrell came a distant fourth with 4,088 votes, unchanged from the last general election.
Ukip saw a remarkable rise in support over just a few weeks of campaigning in Eastleigh. It only got four per cent of the Eastleigh vote at the last general election.
Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, said the Eastleigh results showed that British politics is changing and voters are rejecting all the main parties.
“What happened here in Eastleigh was not a freak result. Something is changing,” Mr Farage said.
"People are sick and tired of having three social democrat parties that are frankly indistinguishable from each other."
During the Eastleigh campaign, the party has focussed on the cost and power of the EU, as well as warning of possible mass immigration from Bulgaria and Romania.
Mr Farage predicted that the EU’s role in immigration policy will be “the absolute key” issue in British politics over the coming years.
Despite the by-election being called after the resignation of Chris Huhne, the disgraced Liberal Democrat Cabinet minister – and the sexual harassment scandal facing the party – Nick Clegg’s party still managed to win the contest.
Senior Lib Dems said the result showed their party remains highly resilient, and raised doubts about the Tories’ long-term prospects.
Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president, said the Tories won't have a "sniff" of a majority in 2015 if they cannot take seats like Eastleigh.
He added: "If the Tories can't beat us in a seat they have to gain to win a majority, after the week we've had, that is outstanding for the Liberal Democrats."
The defeat will leave the Conservatives facing their biggest crisis of confidence since Mr Cameron failed to win an overall majority at the general election, and heighten the recent speculation over his leadership.
Grant Shapps, the Conservative Party chairman, insisted last night that the result was not a "crisis" for Mr Cameron and warned against reading too much into “a single by-election.”
However, he admitted the party needs to raise its game.
He told the BBC: “What we need to do is redouble our efforts, so that by the next general election we have a story to tell which is all about... how the Conservative Party is leading the charge to put us in the right place on the issues that really matter."
Mr Shapps’ own plans show the party needs to win seats such as Eastleigh to form a majority in 2015. The last time the Conservatives won an outright majority, at the 1992 general election.
Conservative strategists had hoped the Prime Minister's pledge to hold a referendum on Britain's EU membership would defeat the electoral threat from Ukip.
However, Ukip's unexpected success will put the Prime Minister under pressure to set out further plans for the repatriation of powers from the EU.
He is also likely to face calls to tighten immigration controls and deal with the rising cost of living, as Ukip claimed their supporters are punishing the Coalition for being detached from the lives of ordinary voters.
Tory MPs were last night equally concerned they failed to gain any ground against the Lib Dems even though Nick Clegg has been criticised for his handling of a sexual harassment scandal in his party.
Mike Thornton, the Liberal Democrat candidate, said he was "absolutely exhilarated" to have won as he arrived at the count.
The result defies national opinion polls which have shown the Liberal Democrats have just eight percent support.
Last night, Jeremy Browne, a Liberal Democrat minister, also said the big story from the by-election is "the resilience of the Lib Dems.”
The Conservatives may now be open to criticism over its choice of candidate, Maria Hutchings, who has made a series of gaffes over the last few weeks. Early in the campaign, she was condemned for suggesting she would send her "gifted" son to a private school as local state schools were not good enough to help him become a surgeon.
In the run-up to the vote, senior Tories tried to play down the party's chances of gaining a seat mid-way through a parliament at a time of economic turmoil. A Conservative government has not won a by-election since 1982, during the Falklands War.
The Eastleigh result could strain Coalition tensions as Mr Cameron will now be under pressure to move the party to the right to attract Ukip voters.
During the campaign, Tory ministers gave several interviews pledging more hardline immigration policies but it was not enough to avert the Ukip challenge.
The surge comes ahead of key local elections in May, which the Conservatives now fear could lead to an influx of Ukip councillors. This could help Ukip build a local base ahead of the 2015 general election.