DAVID Cameron has vowed to win back Rochester and Strood for the Conservatives after seeing Ukip secure its second by-election triumph over the Tories in the space of six weeks.
Amid jubilant scenes, Mark Reckless, who defected from the Tories to trigger the showdown with his former party, regained his Kent seat with a majority of 2,920.
Ukip leader Nigel Farage said he would be “very surprised” if more Tory MPs did not now choose to jump ship and join his party in the run-up to the general election next year.
Among the Conservative high command, there was relief that the final result was closer than many commentators had been predicting.
In the aftermath of the vote, a number of prominent Tory Euro-sceptics - including John Baron, Philip Davies and Stewart Jackson - came out to declare their continuing allegiance to the party.
But the result was another blow for Mr Cameron, following the victory of Mr Reckless’s fellow Conservative defector Douglas Carswell in Clacton.
The Prime Minister put his authority on the line, visiting the constituency five times during the course of the campaign.
The party originally vowed to “throw the kitchen sink” at the campaign to halt the Ukip bandwagon, but in recent weeks they had been playing down expectations as the polls consistently pointed to a Ukip victory.
Mr Cameron said: “I am absolutely determined to win this seat back at the next general election because anything other than a Conservative government will put our recovery at risk and Ed Miliband in Downing Street. I am more determined than ever to deliver security for Britain.”
Mr Farage said the result - in Ukip’s 271st target seat - showed that his party was now capable of winning anywhere in the country.
“We have beaten the governing party of the day in this sort of life and death struggle. It represents a huge, huge victory,” he told Sky News.
“I would be very surprised, given where we are, if there weren’t more defections between now and the next general election.
“They won’t happen today, they won’t happen tomorrow, but over the course of the next few weeks people will be thinking and perhaps some of them saying to themselves ‘You know what, I have got a better chance of winning on a purple ticket than I have on a blue ticket’.”
Leader of the Commons William Hague insisted Conservative MPs had their sights focused on winning the general election in May, but admitted that he could not rule out further defections.
“Conservative MPs are very determined to win that general election. I don’t have a crystal ball about what every MP will do, but certainly that is the mood of the Conservative Party at Westminster,” he told BBC News.
Before rushing back to Westminster so that he could be sworn in as a MP in time to take part in a debate on the NHS, Mr Reckless suggested Ukip could end up holding the balance of power after the general election.
“Whichever constituency, whatever your former party allegiance, think of what it would mean to have a bloc of Ukip MPs at Westminster large enough to hold the balance of power,” he told cheering supporters.
For Labour - which suffered a polling day embarrassment with the resignation of frontbencher Emily Thornberry over her “snobbish” tweet about a house draped in the flag of St George - it was another bad night as they came in third.
And the Liberal Democrats continued a humiliating string of by-election performances, finishing fifth behind the Greens with just 349 votes and losing another deposit.
A Press Association analysis of the voting figures suggests that there will again be a hung parliament after next May, however well Ukip performs.
The three major Westminster parties saw their share of the vote fall by similar amounts compared with the last general election: Lib Dems by 15.39%, Tories by 14.39% and Labour by 11.7%.
Mr Farage said the result showed that Ukip was now “gaining traction” with Labour voters.
“I think the Labour Party is in very real trouble with its core vote,” he told LBC radio.
“I don’t think that traditional Labour voters look at the current Labour leadership and even recognise these people are members of their own tribe.”
Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, head of Labour’s election strategy, acknowledged that the party needed to address the “undoubted anger and sense of alienation” among voters.
“My sense is the principle fuelling Ukip’s tank is more anti-politics than even anti-Europeanism,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
“These are trends, if we’re honest, that have built up over decades rather than overnight and you have to defeat that cynicism and alienation with practical answers but that has to be done conversation by conversation, doorstep by doorstep, street by street, community by community. That’s what we intend to do in the months ahead.”
Mr Miliband said: “The most important thing about this result is it was a devastating result for David Cameron. This is one of his safest seats, he told us he was throwing everything at it, he assured us he was going to win, and in fact he lost and he lost badly.
“Of course there are wider lessons. We know we have got a challenge in relation to Ukip. It’s a challenge I’m determined to meet.
“I think what it says is that there is deep discontent about the country and there is also a scepticism about whether any mainstream political party can turn it round. Our fight, our job, is to show we can.”
Mr Miliband insisted that Labour had “changed on immigration” under his leadership, and understood the concerns of voters who are turning to Ukip.
“What people want to know is that we get the sense that immigration is an issue for people,” said the Labour leader. “I think immigration benefits the country, but I also think it’s got to be properly managed. We’ve set out proposals which I think are absolultely the right proposals to do it.
“Labour has changed on immigration since 2010, and we will talk about that as well as the difference we are going to make to the country.
“The fight is on for the future of the country, about the discontent there is - which I think is huge - about the way the country is run under this Government, and who can sort it out. That’s an argument I relish over the next five-and-a-half months.”
Conservative Chief Whip Michael Gove said before the Rochester vote that he was “absolutely 100% convinced” no more Tory MPs would defect.
Speaking after the result, he suggested that any wavering Tories would now question Ukip’s assertions that switching to the Eurosceptic party will improve their electoral prospects.
He said he was “confident” that Tory candidate Kelly Tolhurst would win Rochester & Strood back for the party in next year’s election.
Mr Gove told Sky News: “The striking thing about this result was that the Ukip majority was much smaller than everyone was predicting and that makes me confident that Kelly will win come the general election ...
“The margin is much smaller than people thought and on that basis I think anyone - not that I’m aware of anyone - who is looking at this result would think ‘Well, Ukip aren’t perhaps the vehicle that might have been sold to me’.”
Asked whether Tories should consider an electoral deal with Ukip, Mr Gove replied simply: “No.”