Liberal Democrats Hold Eastleigh Seat in Blow to Cameron

The U.K. Liberal Democrat party held the seat of Eastleigh in a special election, adding to the woes of Prime Minister David Cameron, whose Conservative Party was pushed into third place behind the U.K. Independence Party.

Liberal Democrat Mike Thornton won 32.1 percent of the vote in yesterday’s election to the House of Commons. UKIP, which campaigns to take Britain out of the European Union, came in second with 27.8 percent, ahead of the Conservative candidate with 25.4 percent. The main opposition Labour Party was fourth with 9.82 percent. The result was announced in the southern English town early today.

The battle for Eastleigh, caused by the resignation of Liberal Democrat lawmaker Chris Huhne after he pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice, started by pitching the two parties of Britain’s ruling coalition against each other. It ended with a reminder of the difficulties confronting Cameron, who’ll face questions from his own side about how he plans to see off the threat from UKIP.

“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.”

Swing District

Both Cameron and his coalition partner, the deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, needed to show their supporters they could win in this type of swing district as politicians on all sides look to the next general election, due in 2015.

“If the Conservatives can’t win Eastleigh, it seems unlikely they could win a majority” in 2015, John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, told the BBC. He said UKIP’s showing is “a reminder that the message, ‘we’re unhappy about austerity, we’re unhappy about immigration,’ has resonance.”

The prime minister’s defeat comes on top of Moody’s Investors Service downgrading the U.K.’s top debt rating last week as the economy struggles to grow. His party has been behind Labour in national opinion polls for almost a year and his lawmakers have rebelled against him on issues ranging from relations with the EU to the legalization of gay marriage.

‘Getting Results’

Education Secretary Michael Gove said Cameron should emulate Margaret Thatcher, who refused to be swayed by defeats in special elections in the 1980s, and ignore calls from rank-and-file lawmakers to ditch policies aimed at winning over voters in the political center ground.

“There will be certain commentators who will say the Conservative Party needs to move to the right. They are wrong,” Gove told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” show. “What we need to demonstrate is that the course that we have set is getting results.”

In January, the prime minister pledged a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, partly as a result of Tory lawmakers calling for him to address the threat that growing support for UKIP and its anti-EU policy will cost them seats. That didn’t stop UKIP registering its best ever result in Eastleigh, with 28 percent of the vote.

UKIP said a third of its vote in the town come from the Conservatives and reflected protests against gay marriage, wind turbines and “unhindered immigration” from India. Nigel Farage, the party’s leader, said Cameron is a “con man” and voters didn’t believe he was a real conservative.

‘Increasing Revulsion’

“The Conservatives’ problems are not because of UKIP, they’re because of its leader,” Farage told “Today” after the result was declared. “There’s an increasing revulsion at three political parties that look the same, sound the same and don’t offer any policy differences.”

The party took votes from all three other main parties, Farage said, and is attracting people back who have not voted for 30 years.

“If the Conservative Party thought that the rise of UKIP in recent months was due to euro-skepticism, they should now be disabused of that notion,” Curtice said.

For Clegg, the victory demonstrates that his Liberal Democrats can hold on to Commons seats even though their nationwide poll ratings have fallen by more than half since they entered coalition with Cameron after the 2010 election.

Harassment Allegations

It also shows the party has so far survived damage from accusations that a former Liberal Democrat chief executive officer abused his position to molest women. Clegg spent much of the week defending his handling of the allegations that Chris Rennard tried to grope female activists at party events. Rennard denies wrongdoing.

Clegg told supporters in Eastleigh today that the party had overcome the attacks of opponents to win “a stunning victory.”

“My message is very simple: we can be a party of government and still win,” he said. The Liberal Democrats are becoming “a winning party of government.”

Speaking alongside Clegg, Thornton said the result bode well for the Liberal Democrats at the next general election. “We know we can win here and win right across the country because we know our policies are right,” he said.

Huhne, who was energy secretary in the coalition Cabinet until last year, quit Parliament last month after pleading guilty to perverting the course of justice by asking his wife to say she was driving his car when it was caught speeding in 2003. He faces jail.

In the 2010 election, Huhne took 47 percent of the vote in Eastleigh for the Liberal Democrats, while the Conservatives took 39 percent and Labour 10 percent. Yesterday, UKIP increased its share of the vote by 24 percentage points at the expense of both the Liberal Democrats and the Tories. Each saw their share of the vote fall by 14 points, while Labour was little changed.

Clegg opted for the shortest possible campaign, in order to capitalize on his party’s organization in the district, where it dominates the local government. Ministers and lawmakers from both governing parties paid frequent visits to the seat in recent weeks in a bid to persuade wavering voters.

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