Isabel Hardman

Eastleigh result: the Tories aren’t panicking, but that doesn’t mean they won’t

Eastleigh result: the Tories aren't panicking, but that doesn't mean they won't
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Don't panic, don't panic! But are the Tories actually panicking about the Eastleigh result? Coffee House readers will have seen Stewart Jackson's call on the government to get more robust on Romanian and Bulgarian migrants, and Gavin Barwell's plea to his colleagues to stay calm. But backbenchers aren't really flapping their arms in terror today, other than taking positions we've already heard them take. Even backbenchers who really don't like David Cameron are clear that even though coming third is 'deeply disappointing', it's not a catalyst for disaster right now.

But that doesn't mean Cameron's opponents don't have some sort of vision of how the next few months could pan out. It turns out that some see quite a clear trajectory for the government which they still think will lead to uprisings like those against Gordon Brown. Whether those coups are of the James Purnell or Geoff Hoon type remains to be seen, but for them to be more successful than those two Labour attempts would require someone who MPs could sincerely imagine stepping straight into the shoes of the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It's worth reading Adam Afriyie's piece on ConHome to see his latest attempt to reach out to the grassroots.

But there is what one MP described as a 'combustible mix' that could bring about some panic.

One thing that a number of them think will create considerable trouble for the Prime Minister is the trial of Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks. It's not something that really registers on the radar currently, but regardless of the verdict in the case, there will again by questions about the Prime Minister's judgement in hiring Coulson and his friendship with Brooks. There are other factors, too. This May's council elections would be bruising for the Tories if only for the simple reason that the party made so many gains in May 2009 when Brown was in power. But many are expecting these elections to show quite how hard the gay marriage legislation has hit the party, too. One senior backbencher says to me:

'It's going to be a sodding awful year up to the end of this calendar year. We're going to lose seats at the May elections because we're coming off the 2009 watermarks. We may have Coulson and Rebekah Brooks too. That in my view is a combustible mix and of course Eastleigh doesn't help.'

But what will really spook the the Conservatives is if their position in the polls starts to move significantly below 30 per cent. The party is currently averaging around 31 per cent across the polls. At that stage, backbenchers tell me, those in marginal seats really will have cause to get very jittery indeed.

And then there's Europe, still hanging over the party. One backbencher says:

'The Eastleigh result was deeply disappointing because it shows that the strategy with regard to UKIP hasn't really worked out as well as we would have hoped. We have done the move to the Right: we did that a few weeks ago on Europe. The trouble is we're just not trusted and the same if we talk about immigration: yesterday we had some reasonably statistics but the public just don't believe or trust that from the current leadership.'

Cameron's Europe speech seems shrouded in the distant past now, even though he delivered it just five weeks ago. And it didn't deliver the poll advantage the party had hoped for.

But what Tory MPs fear will happen is that while the EU referendum pledge was a Good Thing for the party, the other parties will still catch up on Europe, and the Tories will have to go further (what was it that John Major said about never being able to please some MPs?). One MP, who believes the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties will both make similar promises so that they avoid a drubbing in the 2014 European elections, says:

'The next logical move is for a group of those who rebelled on the EU Budget will say well, Dave, you need to differentiate your European policy again. And that would mean introducing a referendum bill. Now of course if we asked them to do that, Downing Street would say that they'd never get that sort of legislation through the Commons. But that's not the point. The point is that if Labour and the Lib Dems voted against it, they'd look awful and every Tory MP can say to his electorate "we voted for a referendum and the others stopped us, so bring it on". That's how Cameron could toughen it up.'

That MP believes the legislation needs to come before Labour and Lib Dems make any sort of move on the referendum front in order to give the Conservatives the maximum advantage. There is of course already a Private Members' Bill trying to make its way through Parliament at the moment, from John Baron, which might be one option for forcing the party leadership to consider the idea.

So no panic just yet. One Tory who has been involved in a fair few panics before says (perhaps not entirely accurately) 'the Tories only panic in a crisis'.