Eastleigh by-election: What the result means

Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems:
Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg had been to Eastleigh five times during the campaign. That's five times that the UK's deputy prime minister has cleared his diary and hit the streets of Hampshire. All that during a short three-week campaign! It certainly seemed like everything was at stake in Eastleigh for the Lib Dem leader. They ploughed immense resources into what was a blistering operation. They started from a very strong position. The Lib Dems dominate the local council; every ward in the constituency is represented by a Liberal Democrat councillor. Losing Eastleigh - to the Tories - would have led to a wave of worry inside the party. If a stronghold like that can go, what kind of a wipe-out could be on the cards at the next general election? It could have been though as the mid-term blues for a party in government - a novel negative for the Lib Dems. Winning it, in the face of all the negativity hurled upon Eastleigh by its former MP, would show how resilient they were and how loyal their local support was.

What happened: The Lib Dems put everything into the campaign and it paid off. In the face of mid-term austerity blues and the aftermath of a predecessor who resigned under a dark cloud, Mike Thornton won. It will strengthen Nick Clegg and it will embolden Lib Dems as the coalition dynamic evolves. But their share of the vote was down double digits. It was a tough scrap.

Nigel Farage and UKIP:
Nigel Farage

It's been a good 12 months for Nigel Farage. His party is on the up, with good performances in by-elections in Corby and Rotherham. UKIP will expect to keep that going. Winning would have been stunning - the major breakthrough that's proved so elusive. It would have catapulted Farage, like a grenade, into the mainstream, breathing down the neck of many a marginal seat Tory MP. Beating the Tories was the goal here. If that meant coming second and pushing the Conservatives into a humiliating third place it would feel like a significant victory. The worst case would have been a Tory win with UKIP coming in third or fourth, failing to deliver the 20%+ support that the polls suggested it could expect. This was the first test at the ballot box of UKIP support since that big offer from David Cameron of a referendum on the UK in the EU. If evidence emerged that it had dented UKIP's support it could signal that the good times are over for the party.

What happened: The march of UKIP continues, Eastleigh was their best-ever election performance. They pushed hard on EU migration and an anti-establishment theme. They were the only ones to put on a significant number of votes. It's clear they are now the new "protest vote party". And don't ignore the fact they came close to winning.

David Cameron and the Tories:
David Cameron

When you're the main challenger in a contest caused by the resignation of your opponent's disgraced MP - with that confessed liar's party suffering in national opinion polls - you really should fancy your chances. Add to that last-minute claims of a sex scandal at the very top of your opponent's party and you'd have thought Eastleigh was on the verge of turning Tory blue. It was a seat - and there are more than a dozen Lib Dem seats like it - that David Cameron had to win if he was to take his Conservatives beyond coalition in 2015. Failing to capitalise on all those factors will only fuel the doubters - let's call them "friends of Adam Afriyie" - who think Cameron isn't the man to take them forward. Capturing Eastleigh now would have helped persuade them that he was indeed a winner. It would have given them a pre-Budget spring in their step. He'd have got another female MP in Parliament too.

What happened? Pushed to third in a seat that was theirs not too long ago, their UKIP-like candidate was humiliated. This will lead to renewed talk about Cameron's leadership and his conservative credentials. Why has his offer of a referendum on Europe and increasingly tougher talk on EU migration and human rights not bought dividends in Eastleigh and hurt UKIP?

Ed Miliband and Labour:
Ed Miliband

Labour didn't want people to think there was anything at stake for them and their leader in Eastleigh. Ed Miliband visited but not as the contest gained momentum in the last ten days. A senior aide told me he wanted to run a "serious" campaign but didn't want that to lead to "higher expectations". It is though a barometer of how appealing his "One Nation Labour" is in a southern seat. Don't forget either that Labour's support was historically much healthier around this former railway town. If Ed Miliband wants to reach out beyond his traditional base, as he surely must to win a sustainable majority in 2015, then he needed to be competitive in places like Eastleigh. Labour probably hoped, at best, that it would emerge on Friday with Eastleigh showing signs it was a three way - or is that four way - marginal. A fourth place showing, with barely double figure support, would be jumped on by Ed Miliband's opponents as evidence of significant failure. There's no escaping that this would be far, far away from their current national support.

What happened: Eastleigh showed that Labour kept its core but it didn't do any better. Ed Miliband's One nation Labour didn't make inroads in this southern seat. And some will point to the fact the anti-government protest vote seemed to completely by-pass Labour, in spite of their consistent sizable lead in national opinion polls.

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