Liberal Democrats Win Eastleigh By-Election; Tories Finish Third

ELECTORS in the Hampshire constituency of Eastleigh voted in a by-election overnight (AEDT); the Lib-Dem marginal has been retained by that party by 1,771 votes, after the resignation of disgraced MP Chris Huhne and amid a sex scandal. The result is a slap to British Prime Minister David Cameron.

This is a short post for those who (like me) are interested in developments abroad; Eastleigh certainly held particular significance, both as a Lib-Dem/Conservative marginal (of the type the Tories must win to obtain an outright majority at the next general election) and as a referendum on the electoral health of the Lib-Dems in their own right.

On turnout of 52.8%, the Lib-Dems have retained the seat, winning¬†13,342 votes to UKIP’s 11,571. The Conservative candidate finished third with¬†10,559 votes, and Labour — as expected in this seat — finishing a distant fourth.

The result will cheer the Lib-Dems and their leader Nick Clegg in particular, who have been perceived as too close to the Conservative Party by their supporters as a consequence of the governing coalition they share with the Tories.

All established polls in Britain show the Lib-Dems have dropped more than half the support they recorded at the election in 2010 — a result which, if replicated in 2015, would see that party all but wiped out from the House of Commons.

This result — coming off the resignation of a disgraced MP, and with a sexual harassment scandal enveloping key Lib-Dem figures during the campaign — provides the third-party a much-needed fillip.

For the Conservatives to finish third, however, in a seat like Eastleigh, will place enormous pressure on PM David Cameron and his leadership, as debate rages within the governing party over the direction it should pursue on a raft of issues including deficit reduction, immigration, and the position of the UK in relation to the European Union.

To be pushed into third place — even narrowly — by the anti-Brussels, Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party is an embarrassment to the Tories, pure and simple; proud of its tradition as defender of the Union and increasingly hostile toward the EU in its own right, the pressure on David Cameron to offer the British public a so-called “in-out” referendum in tandem with the general election due in early 2015 will become stifling.

This column has, previously, been an ardent supporter of David Cameron; increasingly, however, we believe he is not suited to lead the United Kingdom at a difficult time and — whilst resolutely supportive of the Conservative Party — believe the time may be approaching at which the merits of other candidates for leadership can and should be evaluated by that party’s MPs, its executive and its membership.

Britain can ill-afford a return to Labour at its next election, just as our own country cannot afford a continuation of the present Labor regime in office in Canberra.

Even so, the result in Eastleigh is a wake-up call to the Conservatives, and an ominous illustration of the difficulty the party must overcome if it is to stand any realistic chance of victory in Westminster under its present leadership arrangements.