Having been knocked back into third place in Eastleigh behind the Liberal Democrats and UKIP, how will the Conservatives react? Despite attempts to spin the line that the “coalition was able to retain the seat,” the manner of the defeat will be hard to stomach. Tory dismay will be compounded by the Liberal Democrats’ ability to hold on to Eastleigh despite suffering from the impact of two scandals.
The weekend will bring the inevitable speculation about David Cameron’s leadership, although there is not likely to be a serious challenge yet. YouGov polls show Labour on 43 per cent and the Conservatives on 32 per cent—but this poor position is tempered by Cameron’s approval rating of 34 per cent as opposed to Ed Miliband on 22 per cent.
There will be infuriated calls from the Tory base, as well as commentators and backbenchers, for the party to veer rightwards. There are elements within the party that are disillusioned with Cameron—the gay marriage vote, Europe, talk of a mansion tax and a failure to get a grip on the economy have left Tories wondering just how blue he really is.
Conservatives went hard for Eastleigh, and the resources that were thrown at the constituency indicated clearly how much they wanted it. Eastleigh is one of the seats that the Tories must win in 2015 if they are to attain an outright majority. This showing suggests that might now be a distant prospect (although a poll by Lord Ashcroft, the Conservative peer, found that if this had been a general election, Eastleigh may have gone for the Conservatives.)
Circumstances have certainly conspired against the Conservatives. The two biggest political problems of our time, the economy and Europe, also happen to be two of the topics about which the Conservative party becomes most irrationally over-heated. (At his recent Chatham House speech, John Major reminded the audience of the acute danger posed to the party by the Europe question.) The strategy on both is now open to question—promising a referendum on EU membership has not neutralised the UKIP threat and a strict diet of austerity has failed to preserve Britain’s sovereign credit rating, or bring growth.