This week’s Cabinet meeting was a deceptively straightforward affair. Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers met as usual, and discussed economic competitiveness and their priorities for the next Queen’s speech. It was a convivial gathering of coalition allies. But no one mentioned the elephant in the room: the Eastleigh by-election, a contest that will pit minister against minister. As one Cabinet member puts it: ‘This will be very difficult to handle, as both sides really have to win.’
This by-election, triggered by Lib Dem MP Chris Huhne standing down after admitting in court that he perverted the course of justice over his 2003 speeding offence, will be seen as a test of whether the Conservatives are capable of winning seats from the Lib Dems — and therefore a majority in 2015. The party hierarchy has decided that their best chance of triumphing outright is to depose many of their coalition partners: half of the Tories’ 40 target seats are Lib Dem-held. They have concluded that the collapse in support for the Lib Dems — a side-effect of coalition — has given them a chance to take back a slew of constituencies wrestled from them over the last 20 years or so.
Eastleigh is precisely the type of place where the Conservatives need to beat the Lib Dems. It is a prosperous southern town where more than 70 per cent of households are owner-occupiers — in theory, prime Tory territory. It is the kind of place the party never should have lost. Chris Huhne’s majority is only 3,864 and bookmakers have put Labour’s chances of winning at 100-1. Given that the contest has been prompted by a Lib Dem MP admitting to having lied repeatedly, then this should be a gilt-edged opportunity for the Conservatives.
Becoming the first PM to gain a seat in a by-election since Margaret Thatcher during her Falklands pomp would greatly strengthen Cameron’s position. He’ll have shown his party — and his MPs in particular — that his plan for victory in 2015 stands a reasonable chance, that his list of 40 targets is not a pipe-dream. He’ll have reassured them that coalition will, in the long term, do more to rid them of what many of them have taken to calling the ‘yellow bastards’ than anything else. But, above all, he’ll have demonstrated that he is a winner. It should be enough to show just how absurd are the backbench plots against him.
The Conservatives won’t have a problem getting resources into the seat. As soon as news broke of Huhne’s guilty plea, Conservative ministers started texting the party chairman Grant Shapps, offering as much of their time as he wanted for the campaign. Everyone is up for the fight. Intriguingly, Conservatives in Lib Dem-run departments seem to be particularly keen to go down to Hampshire and take on the yellow menace. Even the Prime Minister will campaign in the constituency — a sign that he wants to throw everything at it. Conservative MPs are in combative mood, too. One secretary of state remarks, ‘Our lot are absolutely gagging to go and get stuck in.’
But Tory HQ is busy playing down expectations. There is nervousness about Maria Hutchings, their candidate. She shot to prominence in 2005 when she heckled Tony Blair on national television and was rushed onto Cameron’s A-list before being selected for Eastleigh in 2007. But one minister who has spent time campaigning with her cited her as an example of how the party doesn’t vet people properly. However, her defenders maintain that the fact she doesn’t act like a party HQ automaton will be to her advantage in this anti-politics age.
The Lib Dems have a far stronger presence on the ground than the Conservatives. They boast that they hold every council ward in the constituency, and that their vote has held up in the contests held there since the Huhne scandal broke; they came first in the seat in last November’s Police and Crime Commissioner election, despite coming fourth in Hampshire overall. While Lib Dem voters outside the south have been appalled that Clegg climbed into bed with Cameron, in Eastleigh they don’t seem too bothered. This makes some Conservatives think that they can’t be confident of taking the seat. One Cabinet minister observes that ‘all the Hampshire MPs think it will be a stretch’.
Many Liberal Democrats, knowing their local advantage, see this by-election as a chance to change the national narrative — to show that 2015 isn’t going to be the year of their annihilation. They also want to make the Conservatives think again about targeting so many of their constituencies. One figure close to Clegg stresses: ‘We’ll be relatively stronger two years from now. If the Tories can’t win this seat now then their whole strategy is gone.’
This reflects a wider confidence from the Lib Dems that their MPs are in a decent position in all the places where the Conservatives are their main challengers. They point to polling showing that ‘soft Conservatives’ are more prepared to switch to them because of coalition than they were before. Some around Clegg even dare to speculate about gains at the Conservatives’ expense next time round.
But the Liberal Democrats feel that the Conservative strategy increases Labour’s chances being able to govern alone. ‘Let’s say they took 20 seats off us and Labour won a majority,’ says one Lib Dem. ‘What kind of a Conservative victory is that?’ This highlights the conundrum of coalition: it has unified the left wing-vote while fracturing the centre-right. It has left Lib Dems and Tories fighting for many of the same people while UKIP vacuums up the disaffected on the right. But coalition has, in effect, swollen Labour’s core vote: from 29 to 34 per cent of the electorate.
The only guaranteed beneficiary of this Lib Dem-Tory tussle, then, is Ed Miliband. As the governing parties takes out their coalition frustrations on the streets of Eastleigh, they would do well to remember that the prerequisite for either of them being in power after the next election is Labour not having a majority.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 9 February 2013