By Paul Goodman
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David Cameron was accused of pulling the party's punches at the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election, back in the halcyon pre-Av referendum days of Coaltion harmony. But that by-election isn't comparable with the coming one at Eastleigh, at least in terms of the political geography of the constituency.
The Party came third in the Oldham seat in 2010 (though not a bad third at all: Kashif Ali gained 26% of the vote). But it came a good second in Eastleigh: Chris Huhne's majority was 3864 over Maria Hutchings. So Benedict Brogan is doubly right to say that the Prime Minister should throw CCHQ's energies at the by-election, when it happens.
He's right both in terms of the political geography – as I call it above – and the Westminster dispositions. I warned after Nick Clegg welshed on the boudaries deal last summer that 'Cameron's leadership is now at risk". I would say the odds are still against a move for a leadership ballot this spring, but it is impossible to be sure.
Downing Street must therefore simultaneously try to push for victory in Eastleigh and keep the show on the road at Westminster. It will not be easy. In many by-elections, only the two leading parties in the seat fight hard. But in this one, all three main ones will surely do so – as UKIP will too.
- With poll ratings at their present levels, the Liberal Democrats ought, at first glance, to lose the seat. But they are formidably dug in on Eastleigh Borough Council. Clegg will be hoping that the by-election reflects local trends, not national ones.
- But with those yellow ratings where they are, Cameron will meet an swift (though glib) response if the blue ticket doesn't win – namely, that if they can't get the Liberal Democrats out of Eastleigh, they won't be able to get them out of anywhere.
- The LibDem poll ratings have a message for Ed Miliband, too – in brief, that if he can't sweep up those disaffected LibDem votes in Eastleigh, he won't be able to do so anywhere else, either.
- UKIP's aim could be to maximise its vote by taking as many as possible off both the Coalition parties. Or it could target Conservative voters instead, in order to maximise the hurt it is causing the Tories – an interesting strategic choice.