The most conspicuous aspect of the result is that UKIP have pushed the Tories into third place in the kind of seat that they really need to be winning if they are going to get an overall majority at the next election. This will re-energise those who think the party needs to tack to the right to win in 2015, and undermines the idea that Cameron dealt with the EU issue with his referendum promise.
However, that is the wrong lesson. The poor showing of the Conservatives was largely to factors that were particular to this election, and thus, extrapolating from the result to conclusions about national politics, and even the next general election, is a mistake. Firstly, the Conservatives ran a spectacularly bad campaign. Speaking to a prominent Tory MP who had been in Eastleigh in the run up to polling day, he tells me that rather than shaking hands, kissing babies and actually speaking to potential voters, the local campaign had MPs shoving leaflets through letterboxes in residential back-streets. After a few initial gaffes, the Tory candidate was not allowed out without her minders. The local party’s insight into the issues that concerned local people was also appallingly bad. There was a story in this week’s economist about Grant Shapp’s turning up on voters’ door steps on one street, and each and every one of them demanding to know, “What are you going to do about the Rats?!” This is the sort of issue that the party’s local councillors would normally be alive to… if the Tories had managed to get more than four councillors elected in Eastleigh. And last but not least, mid-term by-elections rarely go well for governing parties, especially when the economy is doing badly, and spending is being cut.
The second thing worth noting is that although the Lib Dems won the seat, their share of the vote fell by 14.5% - more than that of the Tories. I have always been sceptical of the idea that the Lib Dems will be decimated at 2015 election for the simple reason that people who have become exasperated with the two main parties and abandoned them for the Lib Dems are not plausibly going to go running back to Labour or the Conservatives. That has been born out. Despite the Tories and the Lib Dems losing 28% of the vote between them on their 2010 shares, the Labour Party gained only 0.2%. These figures should not only arrest premature sighs of relief, they should also make Ed Miliband question his prospects of winning a majority in 2015.
Really, what the Eastleigh by-election points to is not a crisis for the Conservatives, but a crisis for all three main political parties, and our political culture more generally. Despite promises of a “New Politics” at the inception of the coalition most people are still sceptical and increasingly disaffected. Politics and public discourse has long been disconnected from the deeper moral and philosophical questions that politics is supposed to be secondary to. This led to the cynicism fostering, sound-bite politics of the Blair-Campbell years, and the largely correct public perception is that very little has changed.