It strange to think that a bunch of speeding points has turned British politics on its head for the last month; yet, Chris Huhne’s resignation as MP for Eastleigh – an action taken after pleading guilty to perverting the course of justice over a speeding offence – has done exactly that.
Indeed, it has plunged this small Hampshire town, which stands on the doorstep of Southampton, into a by-election of epic proportions, pitting the two coalition partners into battle, perhaps even a war. It has come to be seen as form of mini-general election; a rehearsal for 2015.
No wonder then that the circus has come to town. Walk through Eastleigh and it is amok with red, blue, yellow (often orange actually) and purple – yes, UKIP are here to play too along with 10 other candidates. Politicians have stampeded in and campaigners and activists awash the high street, with pedestrians dodging them throughout their day. Even the party leaders (and Boris) have all come down for a visit – this is no ordinary by-election, but one of national importance.
Why? Because it will come to define coalition politics for the next few months and put the already fragile partnership under increasing strain and danger. If the Lib Dems lose, Clegg and his coalition could be over; with signs that a general election annihilation is on the cards. Many in the party are pinning all their hopes that the by-election will still show that the party has a chance though and, if they win, the Lib Dems have be have given a new lease of life.
In such an eventuality, the Conservatives will thus have to consider what hope they have in 2015. If you can’t dislodge an unpopular party from a middle-class town, surrounded by Conservative heartlands, winning a majority government looks close to impossible.
While this all goes on, Labour looks on with interest and UKIP attempt to steal voters away from the Cameron’s Conservatives. With the result too close to call – and an infinite of possibilities in the aftermath – there is little surprise that the Tories and Liberal Democrats have gone so fully into the battle for Eastleigh.
After all, the days of that sunny Downing Street garden conference – where Clegg and Cameron stood side-by-side like newlyweds – are long gone. The rhetoric of ‘union’ and ‘friendship’ replaced with a more pragmatic realisation of practicality and a “ronseal deal”
The coalition has now, essentially, become nothing more than a bitter, petty and hard-fought tug-of-war over policy; the Conservatives refusal to back House of Lords reform greeted with Lib Dem rejection of any changes to constituency boundary changes. This move will cost the Tories up to 20 seats in the next election; their rage and seething towards their yellow comrades now at its fullest.
Like the Chuckle brothers, Clegg and Cameron mantra of governance now lies on “to me… to you; to me…to you” policy agreements
For the Lib Dems too, there are problems as it now means they have failed in two of their major coalition aims, with the change to Alternative Vote also rejected in a referendum in 2011. Question marks thus hang over what Clegg’s party have to gain from remaining within the partnership.
Their dilemma is a difficult one though. Option one – leave the coalition early and a general election would be hastened; one where the Lib Dems would undoubtedly lose nearly half – perhaps even more – of their seats. Option two – remain within the coalition and hope things get better.
Both are risks, but for now staying within the partnership seems to be a reasonable gamble considering the increasing widespread discontent with the government’s economic policy – magnified by the recent downgrading of the UK’s credit rating – seemingly becoming more and more focused at the door of Cameron and Osborne. Moreover, Lib Dem support took a shock loss of support when they initially joined the coalition – winning 23% of the vote in the 2010 general election, but with only a 12.5% poll share 7 months later in December of the same year – yet that last support has not massively wavered since. Perhaps then, there is nothing to lose for the Lib Dems by remaining in the coalition – they’ve lost enough already.
Nonetheless, the coalition is damaged beyond repair: it’s breakup more when than if. Like the Chuckle brothers, Clegg and Cameron mantra of governance now lies on “to me… to you; to me…to you” policy agreements between the coalition partners. A shotgun marriage, fractured and firmly on the ropes.
This is why the Eastleigh by-election is a political nightmare; two already-split partners, attempting to govern a country in economic woe and social outcry pitted directly against each other. Hardly healthy.
It is Clegg’s yellows that have most to lose from the election. It has been a constituency held by the party since 1994, are in the incumbents and who dominate the local council with 40 out of 44 seats. Moreover, they a party extremely good at holding seats due to local issues, especially in centrist-aras like Eastleigh. They have good a a-typical candidate as well, with the reliable Mike Thornton who has been a parish councillor since 2007.
The Tories are desperate to gain it back, however. They are fairly close to making that possible. Polls give a variety of results between the Tories and Lib Dems, though most give the latter a slight edge.
The wildcard of Maria Hutchings has undoubtedly been detrimental to their campaign though. Not afraid to say what she thinks, she has suggested her children are too bright for state school, made her opposition clear to gay marriage clear, wants Britain out of Europe and has failed to turn up to many debates. She has even been branded the British Sarah Palin by some of the British Press. The Tories were out in front when the by-election was called; Hutchings may have lost it for them.
The joker in the pack – UKIP – may have been the cause though; Nigel Farage may not be standing himself, but UKIP – and its smooth candidate Diane James – are appealing to the Tory-base. Some even believe that they may beat the Blues into second. The task of winning for the Conservatives has history against them with no incumbent government winning a seat from another party ever in British political history.
Perhaps than, it is Labour who will prosper from this; the circus of Eastleigh is a win-win situation for them. With little chance of winning, they have taken a backseat, watching the Lib Dems and Tories take lumps out of each other. They know Eastleigh is of little importance to them, with their candidate being comedian and writer John O’Farrell and some polls even indicating that they seem to have usurped into fourth place by UKIP. No matter: currently polling at around 11 per cent above the Conservatives, the next general election currently stands as theirs to lose. Eastleigh has been just a show for them.
As Eastleigh’s voters go to the polls then, it is all to play for. Hyperbole aside, Eastleigh is just one small southern suburban town. It doesn’t guarantee anything for the general election, whenever that may be. Yet, the result will reverberate around Westminster and will cause a headache for the Conservatives/Lib Dems (delete as applicable).
Once considered as the Liberal Democrat party leader, Huhne’s own political career now lies in tatters. He may leave the coalition in tatters too.