Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Eastleigh, the Tories and the crumbling cliff

Of the four major contenders in Eastleigh, the Tories walked away with their candidate not even maintaining dignity in defeat, UKIP squealing with pleasure and the Liberal Democrats riding strong local organisation and waving two fingers at both the metropolitan commentators and the sleaze-raking dog-whistling cro-magnons of the gutter press.  Labour did a dignified job, sufficient to ensure that the desertion back of their core vote did not result in Cameron crowing in delight.

Had the election been carried out under AV, it is likely that the result would have been different.  It is probably too simplistic to say that UKIP would have won, although it would have been a very interesting test of how many of their voters are disaffected Tories and how many are the kind of anti-politicals that used to vote Lib Dem as a protest in by-elections.  However, the more insightful Tory is probably now beginning to realise that the rise of UKIP is a very close mirror to the split on the centre-left that kept Thatcher in power on a declining share of the vote during the 1980s.

This is going to be difficult for Cameron, as his only recourse is to swivel his eyes to the right while maintaining the rhetoric of moderation.  The chorus of unevolved nastiness that has been unleashed will not exactly help the Tories in Conservative-Labour marginals, particularly when the sheer brutishness of the April welfare cuts hits home.  It will cause a stand-off with UKIP, and doubtless local deals between the knuckle-dragging Tory backwoods and their near-certifiable cousins in thrall to Farage and his xenophobic paranoia.

The Liberal Democrats have done well to withstand both Huhne and the way in which the Rennard story unfolded.  It was a classic Daily Mail smear, similar to the guilt-by-association they attempted with Clegg during the 2010 election campaign, and, as such, the level of coverage that seeked to implicate the Liberal leadership in not merely inept internal management but actual involvement in unspeakable acts should be given some kind of award for yellow journalism.  "Clegg Mired in Sex Scandal" was hardly a headline that suggested a newspaper with any respect for the truth - although to some of us at least it would make him a little more interesting.

Being a Tory will not be easy now.  Whenever their more lunatic Europhobes suggest we should adopt a model like Norway or Switzerland (i.e. conform to EU legislation to permit free trade but not have any influence over what it looks like - the Einsteinian approach of the Tory right to restore national control), they get wrong-footed.  Gideon's humiliation over bankers' bonuses by European finance ministers has been made all the sweeter by the Swiss referendum in favour of a very similar policy, and there is more to follow.  Withdrawing human rights legislation could, according to the new president of the supreme court, result in the UK having to withdraw from the United Nations - a really fine example of the Tory inner cretin being let off the lead.

UKIP did very well by putting up a candidate whose eyes did not swivel (possibly as a result of severely limited brain-stem activity) and playing to the gallery.  Farage is a serious politician in the David Owen mould, both egocentric and likely to pull his world down around him.  The damage he will do to backwoods Tories, both in terms of morale and picking up a sufficient share of the vote to split the right, is yet to become clear.

If the Liberals now start pushing for the Coalition Agreement, and nothing but the Coalition Agreement, while making the right noises about a programme that they would be able to support after 2015, this may be a small turning-point.  Clegg has not impressed with the supine acceptance of right-wing garbage - he has a chance now to create the real narrative of Coalition rather than merely supporting the Tories.  The evidence is that there is enough Liberal Democrat commitment to keep more seats than the commentators might consider - now is the time for them to make it clear that all bets are off in the run-up to the election.  The gamble is essential, even though the outcome is uncertain.

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