The U.K. Conservatives’ third-place showing yesterday in a special election left their leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, with the question of how his party can regain enough support to keep power in 2015.
Cameron failed to take it from his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, who held the southern English district of Eastleigh yesterday in the face of a collapse in their national poll rating. And even though he pledged a referendum on European Union membership less than two months ago, Cameron’s party fell behind the anti-EU U.K. Independence Party, which attacked the premier for adopting traditionally non-Tory positions, including support for same-sex marriage.
Nor can he look for comfort in the economy. Manufacturing unexpectedly shrank in February, fueling renewed concerns of a triple-dip recession, according to a report today. That caused sterling to weaken below $1.50 for the first time since July 2010. The Cabinet discussed the lack of growth this week after Moody’s Investors Service stripped the U.K. of its top debt rating. Those may heighten a rebellious mood among Tory lawmakers that’s already hurt Cameron’s re-election chances.
“His critics will be rubbing their hands, falling over themselves to tell him ‘I told you so’ over gay marriage and all his other offenses against what they see as traditional Toryism,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “Cameron’s main problem, however, is strategic. He’s tried shifting right and that’s done him no good. But where else does he go now? Once again, he’s simply left hoping that the economy comes right.”
Cameron dismissed calls to change course. “People want to register a protest, but I’m confident we can win those people back by demonstrating that we are delivering,” he said today. “I don’t think we should tack this way, tack that way.”
UKIP scored its best-ever parliamentary election result yesterday, with 28 percent of the vote, up from 4 percent in Eastleigh at the 2010 general election. That left UKIP just 4 percentage points behind the Liberal Democrats and more than 2 points in front of the Tories. UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, attributed his party’s success to the prime minister.
“The Conservatives failed here because traditional Tory voters look at Cameron and they ask themselves, ‘is he a Conservative?’ and they conclude, no he is not,” he told the BBC. “He talks about gay marriage, wind turbines, unlimited immigration from India. He wants Turkey to join the EU. The Conservatives’ problems are not because of UKIP, it’s because of their leader.”
Even so, Tim Farron, the president of the Liberal Democrats, echoed Cameron’s sentiment in his analysis of the reasons for UKIP’s success.
“They’ve become the ‘none-of-the-above’ party,” he told the BBC. “We used to be that -- the difference is that we used to win.”
A telephone poll of 760 voters in Eastleigh yesterday found that three quarters of those backing UKIP said their vote was “a general protest to show I’m unhappy with all the main parties.” The survey was conducted for Michael Ashcroft, a Tory upper-house lawmaker who commissioned two polls in the district during the campaign.
Tory member of Parliament Douglas Carswell was one of the first after the result to call for a new direction for his party.
“I would like to focus on the bread-and-butter issues -- cost of living,” he told the BBC. “It’s not just a mid-term blip, it’s a profound change in the way politics is done. We need to change where we stand, so we’re the party people who are fed up with politics should come to.”
Cameron already has difficulty keeping his lawmakers in line. In the past year, they’ve defied him in parliamentary votes ranging from gay marriage to the EU.
“Unless things are demonstrably different in terms of public perception by the early summer he will have great difficulty in persuading the electorate that we can win a general election,” London’s Evening Standard newspaper cited one Tory, Stewart Jackson, as saying. “Too much emphasis is going to the Liberal metropolitan elite and not enough to the blue-collar working vote that Margaret Thatcher had the support of.”
As well as creating a picture of internal divisions, some Conservative rebellions have had a more tangible effect. One last year, to block plans to introduce elections to the upper chamber of Parliament, led the Liberal Democrats to vote against a proposal to redraw electoral boundaries to benefit the Tories.
To win a majority in 2015 will require the Conservatives to take seats off both Labour and Liberal Democrats. With Labour ahead in the polls for the past year, Cameron needed to show in Eastleigh that he could instead win districts from his coalition partners, whose poll ratings have plumbed record lows since going into coalition with the Tories in 2010.
“This is a terrible result for Cameron; coming third in a by-election you hope to win is colossally bad,” Justin Fisher, who teaches politics at London’s Brunel University, said in a telephone interview. “He’s in an unenviable position. He’ll be under pressure to change course but he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.”
Bookmaker William Hill Plc cut its odds of Cameron being replaced as Tory leader before the next election, offering a profit of seven pounds for a two-pound winning bet.
Still, Bale said the Eastleigh result alone “isn’t likely to draw enough blood to see the sharks really begin to circle.” He said the “moment of maximum danger” will be after the 2014 elections to the European Parliament, when Farage said he expects UKIP to take first place.