We are now just a week from the Eastleigh byelection and the likely result is starting to take shape.
The Lib Dems have emerged as the decisive favourites. They have run an impeccable campaign, from choosing a man who was the antithesis of Chris Huhne, to limiting the campaign to three weeks, preventing their rivals from getting their machinery properly off the ground.
For a full explanation of why the Lib Dem ground operation has been better than the Tory one, James Forsyth’s piece for the Spectator gives an excellent summary.
Besides all that on-the-ground intel however, you can tell when a campaign is flailing because of the way its message changes. This time last week, the Tories were accusing the Lib Dems’ campaign of being in “chaos” over an admission by the Lib Dem candidate that he wanted to build more homes in the area, which they saw as contradicting his earlier pledge to protect green spaces. It wasn’t a particularly effective attack, and was only undermined by the over-the-top way in which they expressed it.
This week, Tory strategists have been trying to shift the focus, telling reporters that a poor result for Labour would be a disaster for Ed Miliband, as it would prove he can’t win in the south. While that might be true, a campaign that spends its time talking of others’ failure is clearly not confident of its own success (more of which later).
There is a line of thought that Cameron wouldn’t mind a Tory defeat too much. Maria Hutchings is a right-wing, anti-Europe, anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion candidate – pretty much the furthest thing from a modernising Cameroon. A Hutchings victory, goes the theory, would have given encouragement to those Tories who believe jettisoning Cameron and replacing him with a right-wing alternative would make a 2015 majority more likely.
This might be true, but it is also true that if Cameron can’t win in Eastleigh, it suggests he will find it very difficult to secure a Tory majority in 2015. The seat is the 16th most winnable Lib Dem seat for the Tories, who are banking on winning 20 overall from their coalition partners for their 40/40 strategy of 40 key seats to protect and 40 to win.
That latter fact is one highlighted by Labour spinners recently – which brings me back to the point about campaigns highlighting the failings of others. Despite choosing a high profile, well-liked candidate, the party appears to have made no headway in the constituency, where they came second in 1994. There is now increasingly credible talk they may come fourth behind Ukip. Although much of the focus will be on the coalition parties in the aftermath of next week’s vote, Labour must be wondering what they have to do to regain credibility in the south.
Talking of Ukip, they could be the real winners from this election. A mole with excellent sources in the constituency suggests the party could come third with as much as 20 per cent of the vote. Considering Nigel Farage, the charismatic party leader, chose not to run, that would be an impressive result. Although it remains highly unlikely that the party will win a seat in 2015, it does show that Cameron’s Europe speech has not done enough to win back eurosceptic Tory voters, which gives Ukip excellent leverage as a pressure group, if nothing else.
But of course, the real victory will be that of the Lib Dems. Party strategists have been saying for months that the party does not face the kind of wipeout confidently predicted by many analysts, because their local machinery will hold off the challenge from the Tories, who remain their main opponents in most of their constituencies. If Eastleigh proves anything, it will prove that argument has some merit.
But we should be cautious of reading too much into this for 2015. This is a midterm byelection, and the Tories are getting punished by their traditional voters. It may well be that when the stakes are higher in a general election, they come flooding back. But if these early Eastleigh predictions are anything to go by, Cameron faces an incredibly tough job getting his party into a majority-winning position.