Chris Huhne MP

Chris Huhne MP (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Stephen Tall said it best – “Chris Huhne‘s political career is over. That’s not a sentence I expected to be typing today.”

Chris Huhne has admitted to perverting the course of justice over a decade ago, when his ex-wife took speeding points for him. He could face a prison sentence for this offence, and has said he will resign from his Eastleigh constituency.

I’m not one to blindly defend my political allies – if Huhne is guilty he will likely, and indeed should, go to jail.

It’s a shame – Huhne was one of the party’s big hitters, almost the leader. I had a great deal of respect for him as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change – I’ve blogged previously about the Durban conference, where he was the lead British negotiator.

(His words hold true for Cameron today: If you are not in the room, you are on the menu.)

But what of Eastleigh?

Eastleigh constituency has been held by Liberal Democrat MPs since the 1994 by-election (triggered by the death of Stephen Milligan, Tory), first David Chidgey (now Baron) until 2005, then Huhne until 2013 and then… well, I’m saying it’ll be another Liberal Democrat.

(Political Wonk sidenote – an MP cannot technically resign)

The local party in Eastleigh is well-renowned within the part. It has near total council dominance – with 40 out of the 44 councillors on the Borough Council. In 2011, they defended 11 out of the 14 seats up for grabs… and won a full slate. In 2012, they took the last of the independent seats. There are no Labour councillors, and the only four remaining seats are Tory (and largely aligned with the Tory Winchester Westminster constituency).

In terms of Westminster, in 2010 Chris Huhne won with 24,966 votes (46.5%). The Conservative candidate Maria Hutchings got 21,102 (39.3%). Labour came third with 5,153 votes (9.6%, a drop of 11.5% on previous years), and UKIP got nearly two thousand votes, or 3.6%. The English Democrats, an Independent, and the fringe Third Way party also stood.

Admittedly, in 2010, the Lib Dems benefited hugely from anti-Labour tendencies. They lost 11.5%, we gained 8.2%. This should give us some cause for concern. But broadly, the Lib Dems do well there, as evidenced by recent Council elections and…

What’s interesting about this by-election is that the main contenders are the two Coalition parties. This will be the titanic showdown in a way that by-elections like Manchester Central and Corby never were. Do the electorate back austerity, do they trust Labour, will the Lib Dems collapse in 2015… we may start to get some deeper answers, in a seat that is more representative of LibDem seats nationally. The Tories will be out for revenge over the boundary changes, without a doubt, but I believe that the Lib Dems can hold firm. There’s no evidence that the local vote is faltering, and with Huhne out of the way, the new candidate will be ‘pure’… if they can demonstrate the integrity the electorate need. I believe we can maintain an effective Labour squeeze, perhaps not like in 2010, and UKIP will help collapse the Tory vote.

But this election will, doubtlessly, be affected by these third parties – Labour and UKIP.

Imagine two scenarios – one of a strong Labour vote, one of a strong UKIP vote. Nigel Farage has said he may stand, possibly drawing enough of the Tory right vote away to guarantee a Lib Dem victory. If so, will the Tories have ‘proof’ of the UKIP threat and swing further right-ward? Will that make them less electable, opening the way for Labour to take the helm in 2015? What will it mean for the EU negotiations, or the 2014 Euro elections?

On the other hand, what if Labour surge in Eastleigh, shaving off enough red Lib Dem votes to hand one of our seats to the Tories? A short-term disaster, I would actually argue that this, ultimately, could even be a positive for the Lib Dems – our message to all Labour squeeze areas in future will be “If you don’t vote Lib Dem, you just give the Tories a majority”. Combined with the lists of crazy Tory proposals we’ve shot down that we all know are being prepared, this election could form a compelling narrative for 2015. A narrative that may mean that Labour is marginalised.

My prediction? A Lib Dem win. The Labour vote will increase, doubtlessly, but not up to previous levels: the public are still dissatisfied, and the media narrative will be one of the Coalition horse-race, the one that naturally sells the most papers. The Lib Dems can steal those Tories who no longer view us as yellow Socialists, and UKIP will (whoever the candidate) pinch enough Tory voters to prevent them taking the seat. Enter stage right: a civil war in the Tories.  Don’t forget that this seat is representative of most Lib Dem held Westminster seats: with the Tories in second, a strong Labour party will just hand the Tories a seat. Whatever happens, we will be talking about it for months.

But ultimately, all of this is academic. Polling doesn’t decide elections, nor do past results. The candidates matter, so we’ll have to judge based on them, but that’s not the be all and end all. What decides elections is boots-on-the-ground campaigning. I’m looking up train times to Eastleigh. Are you?

Let me know what you think in the comments, or when I can expect to see you down there.

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