The parliamentary constituency of Eastleigh, situated on the southern English coast between Southampton and Winchester, is an agglomeration of small towns and villages with such names as Butlocks Heath, Hamble-le-Rice, Bursledon and Old Netley, and Hedge End Wildern that seem to come straight out of the television series Midsomer Murders. It might almost be an archetypal stretch of Old Tory England, which indeed it was — regularly returning Tory MPs with majorities ranging from 13,000 to 20,000 — until 1994, when, in a Midsomer-like plot twist, its Tory MP was discovered dead, lying on a kitchen table, wearing suspenders and ladies’ stockings, with an orange in his mouth and an electric flex cable around his neck, having seemingly embarked upon an experiment in autoerotic asphyxiation and self-bondage that went wrong. The third-party Liberal Democrats won the seat in a special election that year and have held it ever since.
Three weeks ago, however, Eastleigh’s most recent Liberal Democrat MP, Chris Huhne, also a senior cabinet minister in the post-2010 coalition government of Tories and Lib-Dems, resigned from Parliament, pleaded guilty to perverting the cause of justice (he had persuaded his wife to claim falsely that she was driving his car when police cameras detected it as speeding), and was told by the judge to expect a prison sentence. Here was a scandalous opportunity for the Tories to regain the seat that they had always felt was truly their own.
That scandal was multiplied tenfold by allegations in the week of the election that a former Liberal Democrat electoral chief, Lord Rennard, had applied wandering hands to the legs and bottoms of aspiring Lib-Dem women, that his disgrace had been covered up by, among others, the Lib-Dem leader, Nick Clegg, and that after a brief exile in the wilderness the noble Lord was returning to a top leadership position. There was even loose talk of a “Liberal Democrat casting couch,” which, when we recall that politics is show business for ugly people, is not a topic you want to think too much about. Lib-Dem women, now further offended, leaked the story.
Against such a background, the Tories should have romped home. Instead, they came in third, 3,000 votes behind the successful Lib-Dem candidate and — still worse — 1,000 votes behind the upstart UKIP (or United Kingdom Independence party). The three parties won 25, 32, and 28 percent of the vote respectively. Labour voted present; it got 10 percent.
As always, excuses are plentiful. After 18 years holding the seat, the Lib-Dems are “dug in” at Eastleigh; they hold almost all the local council seats. UKIP’s vote was largely a “protest vote” that will evaporate in a general election. The UKIP candidate, Diane James, was an unusually able one. And so on.
These excuses hold very little water. To start with, the Lib-Dem result was worse than the Tory one in percentage terms — a fall of 15 points since the last election compared with 14 for the Conservatives. But the Lib-Dems’ former voters went to UKIP rather than to the Tories. UKIP’s total certainly contained protest votes. But since another ten candidates (from “Wessex Regionalist” to an “Elvis Loves Pets” supporter) siphoned off pure protest ballots amounting to 5 percent of the total vote, UKIP was probably left with a fairly high ratio of partisan supporters to temporary protesters. And Ms. James was undoubtedly a strong candidate, but if the party continues to gain ground and credibility, there will be more like her. Opportunities for UKIP to gain both lie ahead in local elections this May, in European elections in May of 2014, and in whatever special elections occur before May 2015.
So although UKIP is likely to fall from its current standing of 9 to 12 percent in national opinion polls, let alone the 28 percent recorded in Eastleigh, it will win substantially more votes than the 3.1 percent it achieved in 2010. Once a party breaks through a certain credibility barrier, it can multiply its votes very rapidly, as the Lib-Dems have shown. Let’s guesstimate a UKIP score for 2015 of anything between 6 and 9 percent. The Tories therefore face electoral competition on their right for the first time since democracy. Even with UKIP support at a level of 6 percent, the conditions for an almost certain Tory defeat in the 2015 election will be met.
The other three conditions are as follows: First, the voters in 2015 will be poorer in real terms than they were in 2010 even if the economy grows moderately well between now and the election. A five-year decline in real wealth has not happened since the Second World War. Second, the electoral system is biased against the Tories to the point that they need something like a six-point lead in votes over Labour in order to break even in parliamentary seats. And, third, there are narrow limits to what the Tories can do to reverse the trends currently running against them — including the leeching of their votes by UKIP — if the problem is not merely unpopular policies but also distrusted political leaders.
Prime Minister David Cameron gave a major speech early this year promising a 2017 referendum on whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union. It was designed and expected to halt UKIP’s rise. Eastleigh suggests that it mainly made UKIP’s signature issue look respectable. And the likely reason is that Cameron broke an earlier “cast iron” pledge, citing legal and practical difficulties, to hold a referendum on the Lisbon constitutional treaty committing the U.K. to still deeper European political integration. He now has to overcome a large gulf of distrust with the voters, especially conservative voters, if he is to persuade them to return to the fold.
Oddly enough, the seeds of this distrust lie not in the inevitable accidents and failures of political life but in the broad political strategy that David Cameron has pursued since becoming Tory leader in 2005. This strategy — commonly known as “modernization” but better called by the more neutral name of “Cameronism” — held that the Tories had lost their appeal to the voters in the vital center of politics because they had obsessively concentrated on such issues as crime, immigration, and Europe and gained a reputation as the “nasty party” thereby. Thus, Cameron’s first step as leader was to downgrade those issues and focus instead on such progressive ones as a green-energy policy of subsidizing “renewables” and increasing foreign aid (with photo opportunities). Would this strategy carry conviction with the target centrist voters, however, and with the liberal metropolitan media, such as the Guardian and the BBC, which were transmission belts to these voters? The more ruthless Cameronians doubted it. They argued that the Tory party, in order to be credibly progressive, had to demonstrate its contempt for its more reactionary supporters. On several policies — above all, same-sex marriage — it did just that.
Their success was seen at Eastleigh: They drove away natural Tories and helped UKIP go from a tiny protest party to a serious competitor. It was marred by only one flaw: The centrist voters leaving Labour and the Lib-Dems went not to the Tory party but to UKIP.
This process will be very hard to reverse. Cameronism has made the Tories a largely directionless party. What remains of it at constituency level — membership has halved under Cameron — doesn’t know what to think other than that something has gone terribly wrong since Tory MPs defenestrated Margaret Thatcher. The party’s ministers and loyalist MPs are rendered inert by the strategic decision not to challenge the metropolitan-liberal consensus. They are confined within social-democratic limits on everything from taxation to equality to Europe. They are dumb on the implications of the scandals within the National Health Service that have quite literally killed thousands of people. And when they break out of these constraints in response to events like Eastleigh — as Home Secretary Theresa May did with a promise to leave the European Convention on Human Rights — no one believes them. To use American English, such things are seen as “boob bait for Bubba.”
Even if they were minded to adopt bolder policies, the constraints of coalition politics would re-imprison them. As Iain Martin points out in his Telegraph blog:
Now it is plain that the coalition is turning into a disaster for the Conservative party. Not only has it robbed it of freedom of thought and manoeuvre, it has forced Conservative ministers into adopting and defending positions guaranteed to cause them trouble with their own voters. . . . It is kamikaze politics.
As a result Cameronism has moved the entire spectrum of British politics to the left. Even Tories now argue in favor of wealth taxes.
David Cameron is an agile and inventive politician. But his political strategy is at an impasse. One possible way to avoid defeat might be to provoke a party split, isolate the Right, and lead most Tories into an electoral pact with the Lib-Dems, ultimately forming a Center party. Even if that is his intention, however, it seems beyond his reach. He carried fewer than half of Tory MPs with him on gay marriage. Anything like a merger with the Lib-Dems would provoke a larger rebellion. And most Lib-Dems, activists and MPs alike, who regard the Tories as the traditional enemy, would reject it.
This leaves the prime minister in a very lonely place. As far as the world knows, David Cameron never wears ladies’ stockings, uses an electric flex only to turn on the light, and believes that the sole purpose of oranges is to serve as part of a healthy diet. But Cameronism looks increasingly like an experiment in autoerotic asphyxiation and self-bondage all the same. And it’s going wrong.