Today we have a gratefully-received guest from Dan Phillips. If you cast your minds back Dan last wrote for us on the Edinburgh Council elections last year. Having quit the media and moved back to England but still an electoral obsessive he’s now turned his attentions to Eastleigh. Dan has his own blog on liberalsellout.wordpress.com
I can only imagine the icy stares, the barely concealed hate bubbling under between Conservative and Lib Dem activists in Eastleigh, back in May 2010. As sure as Clegg and Cameron exchanged furtive glances across the Rose Garden a few days later, there were metaphorical daggers thrown in Huhne’s back by Maria Hutchings in an anonymous hall. The Conservatives had lost a ‘naturally Tory’ seat once again.
Eastleigh isn’t famous for much. Benny Hill and the naked rambler are from there, but that’s about all. But up until 1994 when their Tory MP died in, well, unusual circumstances, it was True Blue. The Liberal Democrats, pouncing on an unpopular Major government and using the pluck of the underdog won it and have been there ever since. As you’ll have no doubt heard, it is also the only place in the country where every returned councillor has the yellow birdy pinned proudly to their chest.
But it is by no means a fortress. That majority has see-sawed from over 9,000 in 1994 to a mere 568 in 2005 to the current impressive but not impossible to overturn 3,864. The Lib Dems have to work hard to keep this seat each time, and they had the troops to fight the ground war in 2010. But as Michael Portillo is apt to point out, the Conservative Party hasn’t won an election outright since 1992, the very same time this little pocket of Hampshire last dabbled in Toryism. This battle between the two halves of the Coalition Waltz is a battle of existentialism for both parties.
For the Lib Dems, Eastleigh is the chance to disprove the prevailing theory, and the depressing facts since those halcyon days of the first flush of Coalition love. If the headlines are right the Lib Dems have been sapped of those very activists that keep Eastleigh and many of their Southern seats in their talons as membership has imploded. And there is of course the small matter of the opinion polls that have read more like a roll call of the dead than evidence that there’s about to be an uptick in fortunes. Win this rearguard action and electoral annihilation is no longer the certain outcome the pundits are predicting.
But if they fail you don’t have to look too hard to see the implications for them. That electorally yellow foot of the South West is at risk of a domino collapse. Mid Dorset and North Poole has a mere 269 votes majority. Or how about Wells where Tessa Munt ousted a Tory with just 800 votes spare in 2010. There’s many more where careers hang on a wafer thin majority.
Equally, for the Conservatives, if they can’t recapture the home of Benny Hill how can they ever expect to govern with a majority ever again? Snuff out those helpful liberals in the South West and there’s less work to be done in the Labour-Tory marginal war zones. But here’s the rub for Cameron: what would a Maria Hutchings win say about his leadership?
She’s not exactly on-message. Against gay marriage, wants out the EU and allegedly misquoted as saying Labour’s ‘done more for immigrants, the gays and bloody foxes‘ than disabled children back in 2005 she’s not at the vanguard of the modern Conservativism he claims to espouse. Indeed, in a byelection fight with the Lib Dems I can scarcely think of a Tory less likely to garner votes from that quarter than Hutchings. So if she were to win, what would Cameron gain? Another rebellious backbencher?
Her candidacy, albeit in place in since 2010, is probably more likely to signify their own defensive strategy: mute the Ukip menace by having a Tory that walks the very same walk. But should she be returned, Hutchings will be held up as the shining evidence for a more rightward shift.
The opinion polls that exist deliciously contradict each other. The two-way duel could yet turn into a four-way royal rumble if Labour and Ukip can strengthen their hand. This battle is emblematic of the Lib Dems’ future fortunes, and the frothing faction in the Tories have a chance to recapture ‘their’ seat. But if Clegg’s party are to prove they are a Phoenix and not a Dodo, Eastleigh is a must.