By Tim Montgomerie
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W1W 7PQ are being cancelled. Ministerial schedules rearranged. Day return rail tickets to Eastleigh are being booked. Looking at Twitter, a lot of Tory MPs are already in Hampshire, delivering dawn raid leaflets and beginning a constituency-wide telling operation.
The newspapers are full of speculation about the result of today's historic by-election – historic because it's the first between two coalition partner parties in modern history – and of the implications for David Cameron. Anything other than a win is going to be difficult for the PM. The Tories' general election strategy is based on winning up to twenty Lib Dem seats. Many Tory MPs will worry a great deal about that strategy if we can't win Eastleigh in the middle of the Rennard controversy and, much more significantly, when Clegg's party is positioned so badly in national polls. Tory HQ will legitimately reply that Eastleigh is not typical of our target seats – it is, after all, a seat where the Lib Dems have a total grip on the local council. I believe that every ward in the Eastleigh constituency is represented by a Lib Dem. There hasn't, nonetheless, been a shortage of Tory activists in the seat. Lord Ashcroft's final poll identified 90% visibility from the Tory campaign and 92% from the Lib Dems. The problem for the party is that we did not have a full canvass in place and we don't have local activists to ensure our door-knocking is of maximum persuasiveness.
The worst scenario for Cameron would be to fall behind UKIP. So much of the Tory campaign has been about stopping UKIP. Our literature in the campaign has been very old school. It's focused on Europe, immigration, welfare and opposition to new housing developments. Our popular local candidate, Maria Hutchings, is almost a UKIP candidate with, for example, her support for leaving the EU and her opposition to gay marriage. She is certainly something of a test case for the idea that you beat UKIP with a more Ukippy message and more Ukippy candidates. I wish her luck today. She'd make a good MP for local people. Conservative HQ have been using the campaign to research anti-UKIP messages. Is the best way to counter UKIP to run the sort of tougher-edged campaign we are running in Eastleigh or do we simply need to say that every voter has a choice – Cameron or Miliband and any vote for Farage will let Miliband in by the back door? In a by-election, of course, the latter argument has much less resonance. In a general election you aren't protesting, you are voting for a government.
The one thing we think we know already is that Labour is likely to come a poor fourth. As much as the Coalition parties are unpopular we have renewed proof that there is no enthusiasm out there for Ed Miliband's party. This should be a four horse race but Labour's selection of a joker as candidate – worse, an offensive joker – displayed a certain recklessness.
Talking last week to one of the Cabinet's biggest beasts they were in reflective mood. They agreed, for the first time, that the 2010 election campaign had been a shambles. They admitted that the economic shock had thrown the party into disarray in 2008/2009. A whole parliament of what they called hug-a-bunny messages had had to be turned on its head. For Tory HQ Ed Miliband is as close
to an ideal Labour leader as could be devised. Ed Balls is the
perfect Shadow Chancellor. Conservative strategists are incredibly encouraged by the stability of
the public opinion polling on the deficit. The numbers supporting cuts and the
numbers blaming Labour for the deficit are remarkably stable. Both Eds
were members of the government that wrecked the British economy. The latest YouGov poll gives Cameron a 34% to 22% lead over Miliband as 'best PM'. Miliband's fundamental numbers aren't improving.
The key Tory messages are already known. Cutting the
deficit. Making work pay. Giving people a choice on Europe. Reforming education
so that Britain’s kids have access to good apprenticeships and good
universities. Focusing welfare on the really deserving, especially pensioners. Bringing
immigration under control. The party thinks there'll be enough economic progress by the time of the next election to convince reasonable, floating voters that the pain might have been worth it. There'll be enough to run a very stark 1992-style campaign — Don't hand the country back to the people who messed it up, will be the message — If you do, they'll tax bombshell you to death.
The party leadership is reasonably confident it can fight a strong campaign against Labour. Its nightmare worry is that its own base will have splintered and leakage to UKIP will mean Ed Miliband might become prime minister on 35% to 37% of the popular vote.