David Cameron 'crisis' if Tories lose in Eastleigh - David Davis
Voting has begun in Chris Huhne's old seat and the stakes are high for the Conservative leader
AS voting began in the Eastleigh by-election today, a senior Tory warned that David Cameron's leadership will be plunged into "crisis" if his party comes third behind the Liberal Democrats and UKIP.
Prominent right-wing Tory David Davis, who stood against Cameron for the Tory leadership, told The Guardian that it will be disastrous for the Prime Minister if the anti-EU UKIP manages to claim second place. Even if the Tories come second with "UKIP on our tail" it will also be "uncomfortable", Davis said.
Davis's comments reflect Conservative fears that "the main route to an overall majority at the next election will be blocked if Tories cannot capture a string of Liberal Democrat seats", The Guardian says. Eleven of the 43 seats the Tories hope to take from other parties at the next general election are held by the Lib Dems, and senior Conservatives are "preparing for a bitter inquest if they fail to capture Eastleigh".
A Tory victory in Eastleigh seemed possible a few weeks ago after the incumbent, former Lib Dem cabinet minister Chris Huhne, resigned after pleading guilty to perverting the course of justice. Recent allegations of sexual harassment against Lib Dem peer Lord Rennard and questions about the way party leader Nick Clegg handled the affair also seemed to strengthen the Tories' hand.
In addition, Cameron's pledge to hold a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU was seen as a surefire way to reduce the number of Tory voters defecting to UKIP.
Despite all this, the Lib Dems look likely to retain Eastleigh according to the latest opinion polls. The most recent survey, carried out by Tory backer Lord Ashcroft shortly after the allegations against Rennard surfaced, shows little impact on support for the party, says UK Polling Report. Lib Dem candidate Mark Thornton leads with 33 per cent, Tory Maria Hutchings has 28 per cent and UKIP's Diane James is on 21 per cent.
Another polling company, Survation, says the Lib Dems are most likely to win but victory is far from certain. Support for UKIP may have been understated in the first few polls and a victory or second place cannot be discounted, Survation says.
The Daily Telegraph's Benedict Brogan agrees with Davis that third place behind UKIP would be a serious blow to the PM. It would plunge him into "another round of arguments about his future, and increase the chances of a move against him".