Tories keep Ukip at bay to win Newark: but what about Ed?
Conservatives in buoyant mood: does Labour really look like an alternative government?
The Tories have pricked the Ukip bubble by winning the Newark by-election with a majority of 7,403. And Conservative Chancellor George Osborne, in buoyant mood on the Today programme this morning, was able to declare it a “disastrous result” for Ed Miliband after Labour came third in a seat they held under Tony Blair.
The new MP for the Nottinghamshire constituency, replacing the disgraced Patrick Mercer, is Robert Jenrick. His margin of victory is less than half the Tories’ 16,000-plus majority at the 2010 general election, but a big drop was expected.
With the help of a huge effort from head office – Cameron visited the constituency four times - Jenrick managed to smother the “earthquake” promised by Nigel Farage after Ukip's European and local election triumphs.
The by-election is a fillip for the Tories ahead of a report to be delivered at the Treasury by the IMF chief executive Christine Lagarde which warns that there are risks to the UK recovery caused by the boom in the housing market, particularly in the capital.
Her findings echo a highly controversial review of the economy by the EU Commission earlier this week which called on Britain to curb its “help to buy” scheme, and to widen the tax base by revaluing larger houses for council tax.
Osborne has already seen Lagarde's report and is confident he can answer the criticism of the overheated housing market. He said: “I don’t want to give too much away but I am going to agree with everything the IMF says about the housing market – of course you have got to be vigilant about the risks in the housing market.”
That aside, The Chancellor said the Newark result was a “strong endorsement” for the long-term economic plan which the Tories will be using as their main platform for the May 2015 general election.
It was the first time in 25 years that the Conservatives had successfully defended a seat in a by-election while they were in office, Osborne reminded Radio 4 listeners.
Now it it up to the others parties to hold their inquests.
At first glance, it looks like the Lib Dems were the major losers because they trailed in sixth, and lost their deposit, with a swing against them of 17 per cent. On this showing, Nick Clegg and Co could get wiped out at the next general election, as they nearly did in the European elections.
Ukip soared from nowhere in the 2010 general election to take 25 per cent of the poll, but that was not as high as their showing in last year’s Eastleigh by-election won by the Lib Dems when Ukip got 27.8 per cent of the poll. It suggests the air is going out of Farage’s balloon.
But it is at Labour HQ that the most soul-searching needs to be done.
Labour will claim that Newark was not a target seat but the fact is they saw their share of the vote cut by more than four per cent. They still lead the Tories by four or five per cent in national polls, but Labour MPs fear they should be doing far better if they are to form a government with a working majority.
As psephologist John Curtice was quoted as saying on the Spectator blog last night: “The truth is that they [Labour] should be on tenterhooks as to whether they will win the seat. That swing that they would need, it is less than the Labour Party achieved in Norwich, less than the Conservatives achieved in Norwich in the last Parliament, less than Labour achieved in Dudley West [or] Wirrel South just before they won the 1997 election.
"When oppositions look as though they are on course for government, the kind of swing that is required for Labour to win has been relatively common. To that extent, we have to ask ourselves, why is it we are not asking the question, could Labour win this? It is all of a piece, as a result of the recent elections… Labour do not have the enthusiasm and depth of support in the electorate that make them look like an alternative government.”
Back to the Tories – and it is possible there could be an inquiry into whether the party broke the £100,000 spending limit on their Newark campaign
Chris Bryant, Labour’s by-election campaign chief, said the Conservatives “threw the kitchen sink, they threw the butler's sink, they threw the crockery, all the silverware, the Aga, the butler, the home help – everything at it".
As well as the four visits from Cameron, there were other senior ministers in town and more than 1,000 party workers were bussed in.
Channel 4’s Michael Crick tweeted that David Watts, the Lib Dem candidate, estimated that the Tories had spent as much as £250,000 in Newark. Sour grapes?