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.