When the markets opens the Tories were the favourites – one bookie even opened up with the party the 2/1 on favourites – which is quite strong. The incumbant MP was going to jail, he was a member of a political party that were languishing in the polls, the smaller coalition party were bearing the brunt of the voter rage of the government and the seat is in an area that has always been blue until the death of Stephen Milligan prompted a by-election at a time where John Major was overseeing a tough and deep recession and had a cabinet full of backstabbing bastards. This was a Blue gain and the chance to make Nick Clegg seriously squirm.
However very quickly the punters lumped on the Lib Dems and within hours most bookies had them both around evens and they weren’t sure which way to go. The Tories got in first with their candidate and on the face of it is seemed a swift and obvious choice but as the days have passed we have noticed one thing – it was a horrific one.
Eastleigh people clearly like the local Lib Dems as they hold every seat on the local council in the constituency. So to win they needed to appoint a candidate who was a soft Tory and not a hard line one. Someone prone to gaffes, speaking about how local schools aren’t good enough for her son, someone who wasn’t down with equal marriage and isn’t exactly keen on foreigners coming to the UK and working. This was a Tory candidate who was basically walking hand-in-hand skipping along with UKIP policies. Not exactly the best plan when you consider UKIP will be picking up the protest vote so instead of gaining disaffected Lib Dems she is busy fighting off disaffected Tories going to UKIP.
When you have an election where the majority are clearly broadly in a small political spectrum then you should put yourself in that political spectrum if you want to win. The Tories and the Lib Dems currently are in a pretty narrow field overall. Cameron is a soft Tory and Clegg is certainly not a natural left leaning Lib Dem leader so essentially if the candidates towed the national line it would come down to whether the Huhne mess and the general Lib Dem national malaise would be enough for the Tories to step in.
As we all know though the Lib Dem candidate Mike Thornton is the only person in the narrow spectrum that the majority subscribe to. Soft liberals will not vote Tory next Thursday. They may vote Labour or one of the fringe parties or not bother voting but the soft Lib Dem vote will not go in any significant number to Maria Hutchings. So to win she has to establish herself as more credible than UKIP and try to tear down the Lib Dem vote to keep it at home or to send it to Labour or fringe candidates.
Can she do this? Yes but I can in theory become a Calvin Klein underwear model. Maria Hutchings is not a dynamic candidate that is engaging the public nor one who is generating positive press. I think the press over-inflate their influence but she just isn’t getting *any* positive play and her ground game is not what the Lib Dems or UKIP is. The Lib Dems know to win all they have to really do is keep the vote they had and maybe take a few soft Tory votes who are scared by the right-wingness of the Tory candidate and UKIP. UKIP know all they have to do is target anyone who is pissed off with everyone and swoop them up. When you see Boris Johnson knocking on doors and getting nowhere you know you have an issue.
The Tories could well win still in Eastleigh. Things can change but the general noise coming out is that they know they won’t. The thing is though that the Tories could and maybe should have won Eastleigh. The Chris Huhne trial and story has been knocking around for an awful long time now. Plenty of time to prepare, get on the streets, collect canvass data and have a candidate in place who was a soft Tory that could basically say, ‘look…you are pissed off with Nick Clegg and disappointed in Chris Huhne, why not vote for me and I can be that centerist candidate and not be a liar’ and victory was a far more realistic prospect.
Polling day is six days away and the more likely scenario now is the Tories fighting UKIP for second than fighting the Lib Dems for the win. If the polling does see UKIP get second place it will become possibly the biggest story of the by-election. UKIP’s strength against the Tories, the Tory collapse and the Lib Dem resilience would be the stories and in that order. Having a strong Lib Dem hold might just be the third biggest story of this election – who saw that coming?
Of course plenty can change but the Lib Dem campaign is holding up and confidence is there. The UKIP campaign is strengthening and they are sniffing giving the Tories a real real scare and the Tories are floundering. Labour were never going to be a significant runner and a fourth place would not be embarrassing for Ed Miliband in the slightest. If they were to get in the mix with UKIP and the Tories it might actually be a very good night for the party.
Still all to play for but the Lib Dems have run (so far) a very good campaign. The Tories seem to have stumbled without a clear plan (despite plenty of feet on the ground) and UKIP are picking up on that general anti-establishment feeling that is encompassing the nation.
Whatever happens next Thursday I can see several very interesting storylines…