At last, some positive press for the Lib Dems. Whilst the deputy prime minister breathed a sigh of relief as his party triumphed in the Eastleigh by-election this week, the event didn't fare quite so well for David Cameron and the Conservatives. Despite being threatened by the resignation of former energy minister Chris Huhne after he pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice, and additionally the recent sex scandal engulfing Lib Dem peer Lord Rennard, Mike Thornton managed to secure victory for Nick Clegg and his party.
For the Conservatives, however, it was a damaging defeat with their candidate Maria Hutchings coming in third. A humiliation for the Tories but a revelation for UKIP who stole second place, much to the elation of their leader, Nigel Farage. Such an outcome would have seemed highly unlikely a few weeks ago which begs the question, what changed? Mr Farage believes that the Conservatives have swayed from their core traditional values and engaged with other issues which may have shaken the trust of loyal Tory voters:
"There isn’t a Tory Party any more. It’s now just another brand of social democracy", he commented after the result.
Following the Eastleigh outcome, concerns are now being raised about the direction and competence of David Cameron's leadership. There is a sense that the Tory party of late may have focussed too greatly on smaller issues, for instance, the gay marriage debate which has diverted attention from the bigger questions of immigration and Europe, aspects which the public want to see being effectively tackled. On Friday morning, education secretary Michael Gove was sent out to limit the damage and reassure the press that this was not a major set-back for the Tories. Mr Gove commented that he was "sad" but not humiliated at the defeat and believed voters had turned to UKIP in "pain and frustration". Speaking later on Friday, Mr Cameron acknowledged that it was a "disappointing" result for the Conservatives but trusted that his party could win people back in time. The prime minister added:
"This is a by-election. It's midterm, a protest; that's what happens in by-elections".
Although by-elections can have a varying degree of significance in politics, Eastleigh has made an impact. This was not only an event where the Conservative's lost to the Lib Dems, but where they also lost to UKIP, a genuine shock and a much deeper wound to heal. Cameron has reiterated that he will not "tack" to the Right, though he will have serious questions to answer about the future direction of his party. The prime question for the Tories used to be what to do about the Lib Dems, now it's about what they propose to do about UKIP.
By Emily Stacey