Chris Huhne did something that was wrong and stupid, and now he has to take the punishment for it. It’s a shame that a career that promised so much has to end this way, but if he’d taken the care to actually drive sensibly in the first place, he wouldn’t be in this position. As it is, error was then piled upon error, got mixed into a sea of malice, and we find ourselves where we are today. As someone who campaigned for him in two leadership elections, I’m obviously disappointed.
However, one thing I would note is that I’ve been told by several sources that the ‘if ballots delayed in the Christmas post had been counted, he’d have been leader and Deputy Prime Minister now’ story may well not be true. Some have told me that those ballots were never even looked at, let alone counted, and others have said that even those that were looked at may have leaned more towards Huhne than Clegg, they weren’t enough to actually win the election. Added to that, my years of talking about alternate histories and what-ifs show the knock-on effects of a Huhne leadership would make the situation now very different.
Today, though, we’re not going down the path of what-iffery, but the neighbouring line of what-mightery instead. What might happen at the Eastleigh by-election that Huhne’s resignation now triggers? I’m going to stick my head out here and say that if the party gets the candidate selection right, then it will be a Lib Dem hold. There are several reasons for this:
First, Eastleigh is a Lib Dem stronghold in local elections – out of 44 seats on the local council, the Lib Dems hold 40, the Tories 4. From what I am told, there’s a strong local campaigning and activist network, and several high-profile people locally besides Chris Huhne. I would expect one of them to be the candidate.
Second, the Tories are the nominal challengers from the last general election, but their national poll ratings have also dropped since then, and in a high-profile by-election like this, they’ll be very vulnerable to the UKIP factor, especially if Nigel Farage is the UKIP candidate. They don’t appear to have a big local base to rely on, and what motivation is there for a Tory voter to campaign to replace one coalition MP with another?
Third, Labour should benefit from being the main opposition in a by-election, but I think they’re starting from too far back. They had just 9.6% of the vote in 2010, in a constituency where they only got around 27% in the 1994 by-election and 1997 anyway, and in my opinion they’re starting from just too far back. It would need a swing of over 20% to even put them in contention (and that would require UKIP stealing a lot of the Tory vote too) and while such swings were common in the mid-90s by-elections, they’re not being made at the moment. (At least, not by the major parties)
As my recent series of retro-post has shown, my track record of predictions has not been too accurate, but I think I’ve set out a decent argument as to why this could well be a Lib Dem hold. That’s not to say that events could get in the way and derail it – poor campaigning, bad candidate selection, a senior Lib Dem doing something even more stupid than usual – but as things stand, I think a Lib Dem hold is the most likely outcome.