Ashcroft NEW 2013By Lord Ashcroft KCMG PG

The Conservatives enter the
Eastleigh by-election campaign with a narrow lead over the Liberal Democrats. A
poll I conducted over the two evenings immediately following Chris Huhne’s
resignation put the Tories on 34%, with the Lib Dems on 31% and Labour on 19%.
The result shows that both coalition parties have everything to play for in the
three weeks to polling day on 28 February.

Though the Conservative
share is six points lower than the 40% achieved at the 2010 election, the Lib
Dems are down sixteen points and Labour are up nine. UKIP start with 13%, also
up nine points since 2010.

There is some more
encouraging news for the Tories. Conservative voters are the most likely to be
sure how they will vote, and Lib Dems who say they may change their minds are
more likely to switch to the Tories than any other party. However, Labour
voters are more likely to be open to changing, and are more likely to move to
the Lib Dems if they do.

Only a fifth of Eastleigh
voters would rather see Ed Miliband as Prime Minister than David Cameron, and
the Conservatives lead on getting the economy growing and creating jobs, as
well as dealing with the deficit.

Though voters in the
constituency are on balance pessimistic about prospects for the economy over
the next few years, they back the coalition’s ‘Plan A’ for deficit reduction by
a wide margin.

Moreover, voters tend to
credit these policies to the Conservatives, not their junior partners. Only
just over a fifth of Lib Dem voters think their party has much influence within
the coalition – indeed Conservative voters are more than twice as likely to
think Nick Clegg is influential than his own supporters. Overall, Cameron and
Osborne are more trusted to run the economy than Miliband and Balls by a wide
margin – but Lib Dem voters are no more likely to choose the government team
when Nick Clegg is mentioned alongside his coalition colleagues.

If voters see the campaign
in terms of national issues, then, the Conservatives are in a very strong
position. But as always, the Liberal Democrats will focus on the local. This is
where the danger lies. Two thirds of Eastleigh voters – including a majority of
Tories and 97% of Lib Dems – agree that “the Lib Dems do a good job locally in
my area”. It is notable that despite the Conservative lead in voting intention,
half the constituency’s voters expect the Lib Dems to win the by-election;
indeed, Conservatives are more likely to expect this than a Tory victory.

Winning a seat from the
Liberal Democrats is much easier when the incumbent is out of the picture. But
Eastleigh has been in Lib Dem hands for a long time, and the party has a strong
local government base in the borough. Huhne was a popular and, by all accounts, assiduous MP, and many in Eastleigh will be sad both to see him go, and about the circumstances of his departure. The Tories should not expect many to switch out of disgust.

So: the Conservatives, with
an initial lead and reasonable support for their national performance, versus
the Liberal Democrats on home territory. This is going to be bruising – but

> More on Lord Ashcroft polls.