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After Eastleigh: the Conservatives

03/03/2013

After Eastleigh – TOC

1. The LibDems
2. UKIP
3. The Conservatives
4. Labour

It’s hard to know what has been the biggest disaster for the Tories in this By-Election: the campaign, the result, or the aftermath. Maria Hutchings should have been a shoo-in to win: she had stood in the constituency before and her previous opponent had resigned in disgrace.

But the Conservatives forgot the First Law of By-Elections: for the main three UK-wide parties, a candidate is one of more than six hundred in a General Election, but is one of one in a By-Election. Her previous utterances were scrutinised, her views canvassed on a range of subjects. She was as hostile to immigration as UKIP; were David Cameron’s proposed referendum on the EU to take place, she would vote to leave it; had the been in the Commons a few weeks earlier, she would have voted against equal marriage. It seems that she shared a party affiliation with her leader, but very little else: she had more in common with UKIP, a point that all of her opponents were happy to exploit.

So faced with this gulf between the candidate and the Leadership, the Tories had two options: try and spin her as an independent(ish) voice for Eastleigh, or crowd her out with neighbouring MPs and frontbenchers, and lock Hutchings in a cupboard somewhere. They went with Option B, which served to only further highlight the ideological gap, and raised questions as to whether or not she had been gagged. Even following the result, her speech was brief and devoid of any political content, and she was whisked out of the counting hall, not speaking to any of the reporters throwing questions at her. Not speaking at all.

So again, it’s a judgement call: she was fine as one of six hundred, but the party assumed she’d be fine as one of one. She wasn’t. They then needed to find a way of backing her up when exposed. They didn’t. The Second Law of All Politics was in effect: it’s not the action that hurts, it’s the reaction.

Then there was the result: the Tories came third in a two-horse race. They shed their vote fell by 14 points and Hutchings shed almost half the votes she’d garnered in 2010. The only things that bore even a passing resemblance to a ray of light were the minuscule net LibDem-Tory swing (0.26%) and the almost total failure of Labour to capitalise on Coalition misfortune. Yes, it was a mid-term result, as the Tory mantra went, but they initially had hopes of victory in this poll.

So what now? David Cameron has said that there will be no lurch to the right,but his Cabinet seem out to prove him wrong, with Defence Secretary Philip Hammond demanding a cut in the welfare budget to preserve the MoD, and Home Secretary Theresa May openly musing about the UK quitting the ECHR.

This might be what Tories want to hear. But it won’t work. The Tories need to get that they didn’t lose the election because they just weren’t right wing enough. They tried that approach in 2001. It failed. They tried again in 2005. It failed. Their candidate embodied those views in Eastleigh. She came third. UKIP are now established on the party’s right flank. Yes, they need to compete against that, but with recent LibDem travails, the left flank, the centre-right ground, is ripe for exploitation. They missed that, and so the LibDems held it.

This now is the Tory problem: they have a Leader who is still trying to make the odd pitch for the centre, but those who might be attracted to it take one look at the rest of his party and back off. The activists and candidates are on the hunt for red meat, taking a hardline approach for what should be core support on the right of the party, forgetting that core support alone doesn’t win elections. But that core support looks at Cameron’s pitch for the middle and is put off. They are trying to appeal to everyone but are convincing no one. They have two years to come up with a convincing narrative.

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