SENIOR Liberal Democrats celebrated a “turning point” in their party’s fortunes after brushing off a string of recent controversies and their dismal national poll ratings to claim victory in the Eastleigh by-election.
Lib Dem candidate Mike Thornton held off a late surge by Ukip to hold the Hampshire seat for his party in the early hours of yesterday morning, with Prime Minister David Cameron dealt a serious blow as the Conservatives were pushed into third place.
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has been under enormous pressure for the past seven days following widespread criticism of his handling of allegations of sexual misconduct by the party’s former chief executive, Lord Rennard.
But the Sheffield Hallam MP was jubilant yesterday as he addressed cheering supporters at Hampshire Cricket Club’s Ageas Bowl ground, claiming the victory illustrated the Lib Dems can still win elections despite the unpopularity that comes with being in government.
“This has been a by-election we’ve had to fight in exceptionally difficult circumstances,” Mr Clegg said. “We overcame the odds and won a stunning victory.”
The Deputy Prime Minister said the result “emphatically” proved wrong critics who claimed that coalition with Tories would cause the Lib Dems to “lose our soul, lose our values, lose our identity, lose our ability to win”.
He said: “For the Liberal Democrats, my view is the message is very simple – we can be a party of government and still win.”
Lib Dem president Tim Farron said the result represented a “turning point in this Parliament” for the party and suggested it would “strengthen our hand very much within coalition in the run-up to the Budget”.
And he claimed it left the Lib Dems in “a very strong position to start gaining seats from the Conservatives” in the years to come.
The Lib Dems’ mood was in stark contrast to that within the Conservative Party, where strategists had listed Eastleigh as one of their key target seats for 2015.
Growing numbers in the Conservative Party now appear to be questioning whether Mr Cameron will be able to deliver the outright victory they crave, with the growing threat of Ukip splitting the right-wing vote in key constituencies.
Party vice chairman Michael Fabricant, who was heavily involved in the Eastleigh campaign, warned Ukip had managed to “connect” with blue collar Tories.
“The Conservative voice is muffled and not crisp. It does not clearly project Conservative core policies or principles,” he wrote.
“With Ukip clearly announcing policies the public want to hear, we must do the same.”
Speaking at Downing Street, the Prime Minister aimed to strike a more positive note, describing the result as “disappointing” but adding: “It is clear that, in mid-term by-elections, people want to register a protest.”
“I am confident that at the general election we can win those people back by demonstrating that we are delivering for everyone who wants to work hard and wants to get on,” Mr Cameron said. “That is what we will be focused on.”
The message was reinforced by Conservative Education Secretary Michael Gove, who insisted that the party would not be blown off course by its defeat and would resist backbench calls for a shift to the right on issues like immigration and gay marriage.
“What we need to demonstrate is that the course we have set is producing results,” Mr Gove said.
“If people think you are changing policy in order to take account of a by-election or to play party politics, that is when the problems arise.”
The grim Tory headlines masked a poor result for Labour, who finished a distant fourth and managed to improve on their 2010 showing by just 0.2 per cent.
Party leader Ed Miliband, the MP for Doncaster North, said: “Clearly I would have preferred to have got more votes than we did, but this was always going to be a tough fight for Labour – it’s a seat that we’ve never won.”