Huhne by-election a nightmare for Cameron's divided Tories

The PM knows that the drumbeats for a change of leader will get louder if he loses Eastleigh again

Column LAST UPDATED AT 09:21 ON Tue 5 Feb 2013

DAVID CAMERON has ordered Conservative Central Office to "go for the kill" in the Eastleigh by-election caused by the resignation of Chris Huhne - but today's poll in The Sun, stretching Labour's lead to 15 points over the Conservatives, shows the disgraced Lib Dem's seat could be the final nightmare for Cameron's leadership.

The Sun poll shows that 71 per cent see the Tories as divided and 54 per cent support today's bill on gay marriage. In other words, the grassroots Tories who oppose same-sex marriage are out of touch with the public, and Tory MPs who are going to vote against Cameron in today's Commons vote are merely making their party look more divided.

This is a disastrous backdrop for Cameron's bid to win back Eastleigh for the Tories.

Also, there are question marks over the Tory candidate, Maria Hutchings, who fought the seat in 2010 with no previous experience in politics. She was on Cameron's A-list back then, but there is speculation today that the Tory high command may parachute in their own candidate if they feel she cannot deal with the strain of a by-election circus in such a high-profile dogfight with the Liberal Democrats.

Huhne's self-inflicted disaster guarantees that the uneasy truce between the coalition partners will be shattered. Eastleigh – where Tory Stephen Milligan, another journalist-turned-politician, held the seat until his bizarre death in an auto-erotic accident in 1994 - promises to be the most vicious Lib-Dem-Conservative scrap in years.

It is a nightmare for Cameron if he loses, because it is a true Lib-Dem/Tory marginal (Huhne first scraped in with a majority of 568 votes and won it again in 2010 with only a 3,864 majority over Hutchings). Cameron knows the drumbeats for a change of leader will get louder if he loses it again.

It is likely the Lib Dems will opt for the Eastleight by-election to be held on the same day as the May local elections to maximise their vote. The local council is almost a one-party state, with the Lib Dems holding every council seat in the constituency. The Lib Dems may be doing badly nationally, but the odds are stacked in their favour locally.

There is the added spice of UKIP and whether the breakaway party will enter the fray in the form of their leader, Nigel Farage. He was playing hard to get last night on C4 with Cathy Newman, saying he was "thinking about it" and that he had a lot to do in Brussels. But it is a golden opportunity for some soundbite action by the UKIP leader which he will be loathe to pass up.

Farage's party did well in the by-elections in November, coming second in Middlesbrough and Rotherham and third in Croydon North. Eastleigh is another great opportunity to bash the Tories for Farage, and he could stand on a compelling old-school conservative ticket of a referendum to take Britain out of the EU, a return of grammar schools, and an end to subsidies for wind farms.

As for Chris Huhne, who let his arrogance to get the better of him when he asked his wife, Vicky Pryce, to take the rap for three penalty points for speeding, the car-crash of his marriage brings another dimension to this sorry tale.

Vicky Pryce was reported in the Daily Mail in September to be romantically linked to 'frisky' Denis MacShane, the former Labour MP who quit over his expenses fiddling, forcing the by-election in his safe Labour seat of Rotherham.

On 21 January, the police said they were re-opening their investigation of MacShane, with the possibility of a prosecution. It would be truly ironic if the irrepressible MacShane finished up in the next cell to Huhne. ·