After the lies, the by-election. The resignation of Chris Huhne as MP for Eastleigh, following his guilty plea to a charge of perverting the course of justice, opens the way to what could be a defining by-election contest.
At the 2010 General Election Huhne held the seat with a majority of nearly 4,000 over the Conservatives – who had held the seat comfortably until a by-election in 1994. Labour came in a distant third with barely 10% of the vote – a fall from a core vote of around 20% that suggested a tight tactical squeeze. At local level the Liberal Democrats are dominant – holding 40 out of the 44 seats on Eastleigh District Council.
The big battle will inevitably be portrayed as that between the Coalition parties. It’s the first by-election in which they have fought each other so closely, and the recent Liberal Democrat rebellion that brought down the proposed boundary changes will add piquancy to this battle. Put briefly, if the Tories are going to form a majority Government at the next election, they must win seats like this in which Liberal Democrats are defending small(ish) majorities. Moreover, Cameron desperately needs to regain some authority in the Conservative Party, in which he is perceived as a weak and failing leader. Likewise, if the Liberal Democrats are to retain a significant presence in Parliament they must hold seats like this – although at the General Election they will be able to exploit incumbency.
But the real question here – where will the anti-Tory vote go? Labour’s performance in 2010 was undoubtedly affected by a tactical squeeze – but likewise if Labour is to live up to its One Nation billing it’s going to have to do well in seats like Eastleigh. For Labour to win would mean a swing that would dwarf those that Labour was achieving in the latter years of John Major – but if it is to live up to its own hype it has to be a serious contender here. And the stakes are high for UKIP too – this election will demonstrate if the UKIP surge so beloved of media commentators has any substance, or whether it is so much media puff.
And this election will come at a critical time, with a raft of policy initiatives taking effect in April including the implementation of the Health Act and the realisation of many benefit cuts.. There appear to be real signs of a backlash against the Government’s benefit reforms, with growing concern over the bedroom tax – and of course there remains the ample evidence that austerity economics, which defines the coalition parties and still apparently holds Labour in its thrall – is failing. And while Eastleigh is a largely middle-class constituency, it remains the case that austerity is hitting the hitherto affluent – especially those who are retired – very hard. And the very fact of the Coalition – and the obvious and growing tensions within it – means that the traditional return to business as usual after an important by-election result is far less likely to happen.
Who will win? Impossible to say. Unlike many on the left, I don’t think the Liberal Democrats are headed for electoral oblivion (however strongly I might feel that they deserve it). I think it will be closely-fought, hard, ill-tempered and dirty campaign between two parties who have a long history of dirty, negative campaigning – and both of whom have an enormous amount of political investment riding on the outcome. I think the Labour vote will pick up; if it does so to the level where Labour is seriously challenging the Coalition parties that will be a big win for Ed Miliband. And I think UKIP may do well, and I think we will see more Tory hand-wringing at the prospect of UKIP undermining their core vote.
And the Coalition will emerge weaker, with the mutual recrimination and mistrust deeper than ever before.