THE Eastleigh by-election is looking like a turning point for the coalition. Opinion polls suggest the Lib Dems were just about ahead of the Conservatives going into the weekend, with Ukip surging rapidly into third. But that was before most Conservative voters had the chance to reflect upon the loss of Britain’s AAA rating – a direct failure by George Osborne to meet the central target by which he said we should judge him and the government. It was also before Lib Dem voters had the chance to reflect upon Nick Clegg apparently lying (again!), this time about his knowledge of allegations against a former senior Lib Dem.
The Ukip surge appears to include a new phenomenon in British politics – en masse switching from the Lib Dems direct to Ukip, as “not the main two” voters find a new home. It also suggests that the Conservative candidate Maria Hutchings, with her anti-EU, anti-gay-marriage, pro-selective schools stance might have done better if David Cameron and the rest of the Conservative hierarchy had stayed away.
But Cameron could not stay away. If the Conservatives don’t win Eastleigh, it’s hard to see how they can gain enough seats from the Lib Dems in 2015 to win the General Election. If Cameron can’t win there, unless the economy picks up dramatically, he seems increasingly likely to face a vote of no confidence from his MPs. He may win the motion, but such outright rebellion will leave him the lamest of lame ducks.
On the other hand, if the Lib Dems cannot win in Eastleigh, a safe seat where they hold the entire council, Clegg will face the wrath of his party and, following the latest scandal, it’s no longer fanciful to suggest he might even be forced to resign.
The Lib Dems did badly in 2010 under his leadership, despite Gordon Brown’s failings and unpopularity. Then he entered a coalition with the Conservatives, driving half his voters into Labour’s arms. Then he failed to deliver the sorts of constitutional reforms on electoral reform or the House of Lords that were his party’s raison d’etre. Next he’s apologising for this and that. Now he appears to be exposed as a straightforward liar. If the party doesn’t win in Eastleigh, Lib Dems may hold Clegg personally responsible.
So if either the Lib Dems or Conservatives win in Eastleigh, the Cameron-Clegg axis will be damaged. Oddly, therefore, both parties might have a sneaking hope to be rescued by a Ukip surge. Sensational though that might seem at the time, and profound though its implications could be for the medium term, a Ukip victory might avoid a challenge for either of those other leaders.
In Eastleigh, the streets are full of activists in red, yellow, and blue rosettes. But the house windows and cars are full of purple and yellow Ukip posters. Paradoxically, those posters could yet determine whether the coalition lasts until 2015, or disintegrates early under the weight of its own contradictions.
Andrew Lilico is a columnist for ConservativeHome.