You’ll probably be bored to distraction by acres of newsprint today, as the heavyweight pundits – those who boast ‘inside sources’ so close to the Whitehall merry-go-round, they even know which brand of loo paper Samantha Cameron buys from Harrods – pick over the bones of the Eastleigh by-election.
But not here you won’t, I hope. Because, to play on words, the result of the vote in the Hampshire town, whose main claims to fame are railways, Benny Hill’s birthplace and the headquarters of B&Q, was a bygone (or foregone) conclusion before even a ballot was cast.
It’s so utterly rock-solid Lib-Dumb – pardon me; Freudian slip, meant to say Lib-Dem – no shift in the political tectonic plates will move a constituency brainwashed to think and dream in yellow. The local council’s overwhelmingly Lib-Dem yellow and the previous, two MPs, Chris Huhne and David Chidgey, now in the Lords, sported yellow war-paint.
Despite Huhne, the disgraced ex-Minister for Energy, causing the by-election by having been exposed as lying through his molars about his ex-wife taking the rap for a speeding offence, there was never the slightest danger of Eastleigh falling into the dastardly clutches of any other political entity.
In fact, if they’d put up Iggle Piggle, Makka Pakka or Upsy Daisy, the Lib-Dems would have still been breaking open the champers (well, maybe organic Blue Nun in their case).
Not even the pong of scandal surrounding Lord Chris Rennard – currently under observation by the plods for allegedly using his position in the party hierarchy to sexually ingratiate his considerable bulk on ambitious female apparatchiks – could dissuade voters from returning yet another candidate, swathed in jaundice yellow.
And, while Mike Thornton didn’t win on Thursday by the proverbial country mile, he did nab 13,342 votes – at 32%, some 14.48% down on 2010 – to ensure the Lib-Dem dynasty survived.
Not even his master and leader, Nick Clegg’s embarrassing bout of amnesia, apropos when he exactly heard rumours of Rennard’s alleged aberrations – Cleggy had a sudden rush of recall and it was 2008, not just a couple of weeks ago, as he inadvertently first asserted – made an iota of difference to the Great Eastleigh Yellow-washed.
However, the Lib-Dems continue to wallow in a slough of despond elsewhere throughout Britain, their opinion poll ratings slumped to sub-10% popularity.
The reason why is simple: unlike in indoctrinated Eastleigh, less generous voters don’t/won’t forgive Clegg’s sell-out by hitching the Lib-Dem wagon to the despised Tories; of breaking just about every promise in the party’s 2010 manifesto, particularly on tuition fees; and hiding his power lust behind a veil of acting in the ‘national interest’.
One wonders, then, what purpose the Lib-Dems actually serve, apart from being Tory cannon-fodder?
Under the Coalition agreement, they got their referendum on opening the door a crack to proportional representation and received a bloody nose from the electorate. Similar fates met their burning yens to reform the House of Lords, education and the NHS.
So, the short-termism of the Beloved Leader is still likely to backfire when a General Election comes round in 2015, which is why it’s a real possibility Clegg will fail to see out his tenure as the Coalition’s junior prefect.
The shock of Eastleigh, then, wasn’t the Lib-Dems retaining a seat dynamite wouldn’t shift them from, but the abysmal failure of the Tories to score even an honourable second. Eastleigh was 16th on their hit-list of winnable constituencies, yet they could only claim the bronze podium.
Third, even at a time when Britain is beset by all manner of woes – not just financial and the loss of a AAA rating Chancellor George Osborne insisted was his gold standard – is fourth rate by any stretch of the public’s imagination.
And what in creation were the Tories doing with a candidate like Maria Hutchings, who can be described sympathetically as ‘eccentric’, though weirdo would also be appropriate?
Even the Conservative hierarchy feared she was a loose cannon, a flaw she underscored by insisting local schools weren’t good enough for her ‘gifted’ son’s ambitions to be a surgeon, dodging a Radio 5 Live inter-candidate debate and sounding off (script) on topics ranging from the EU and abortion to gay marriage.
Small wonder, following the count, Hutchings could only grin like the Cheshire Cat and remain obdurately silent, as reporters pressed her for what went disastrously haywire.
Had the woman, a mother of five and previously branded ‘a snob’ by locals, come up with a plausible excuse for leading the Cameroons up the scaffold, she couldn’t have blamed UKIP, since the former loony-fringe party took away votes from the big three in equal measure.
In fact, far from being nutters and bigots, as the Prime Minister dubbed them, under Nigel Farage’s canny leadership, UKIP has been refashioned into a genuine alternative to the established mainstream and not just a bunch of spoiling, dissenting opportunists, grabbing protest votes wherever they can filch them.
Undoubtedly, UKIP still has its crazies, but so do the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib-Dems, such has always been the nature of politics and its ability to attract oddballs.
However, Cameron accurately identified the potential menace of UKIP long ago, which is why he promised the ‘in-out’ plebiscite on European Union membership and how he came to block the profligate Eurobrats’ budget demands for yet more moolah to fritter away.
Yet, far from soothing the inflamed passions of voters and outflanking UKIP, the Tories’ Eastleigh farce will have only worsened his frustrations. Because, according to the pollsters, one issue surfaced at the top of the pile of public concerns: immigration.
And there is zilch the PM can do if Britain is forced – by EU decree – to open its doors to a potential floodtide of Bulgarians and Rumanians later this year.
Neither, for that matter, can Farage. But he will be far more vocal, outspoken and populist about it and, for good or ill, his opinions will resonate with hordes of disenchanted electors.
Of course, UKIP has far to go before it can make the ultimate breakthrough into parliament. But one more by-election push in a ‘soft’ seat – and don’t rule out it being a Labour stronghold in the North – could consolidate their momentum.
Cameron saw the danger signs and so, now, does Clegg. If Ed Milliband doesn’t, Labour has a nasty shock coming.