Eastleigh by-election: your essential round-up of the latest campaign news (19 Feb)

by Stephen Tall on February 19, 2013

thornton hughes browneIt’s been another record-breaking day for Mike Thornton’s team in Eastleigh — well over 200 party volunteers had arrived by lunchtime today, with many more arriving later on.

This follows the 530+ who visited this weekend, and the 1,000+ who campaigned during the first week. The party’s poll ratings may not be sky-high, but the determination of Lib Dem activists to prove wrong those who argue the party’s doomed has rarely been more resolute!

This Lib Dem enthusiasm has been picked up by the press this week:

Tories sniff defeat as bullish Lib Dems pour into Eastleigh (Independent)
… A party source described it as the “biggest push in recent memory at this stage of a by-election”.They have been matched by the Conservatives who have called on 1,000 members in the last four days to rally support. However, senior Tories are playing down their chances of victory. They have been hampered by a weak organisation in the constituency, where every council seat is held by the Liberal Democrats. One admitted: “There hasn’t been much canvassing ahead of the by-election and there isn’t a huge database locally.”

times_eastleigh

Tory nerves show as Eastleigh by-election lead slips (The Times)
Senior Conservatives are increasingly gloomy about their chances of snatching victory from the Liberal Democrats in the Eastleigh by-election on February 28. Several sources have said that the Conservatives are trailing their coalition partners in the poll that both David Cameron and Nick Clegg need to win.

(Indeed The Times was even kind enough to advertise the Lib Dems’ own campaign literature — emblazoned with ‘It’s neck and neck’ headlined — apparently mistaking it for the local freesheet.)

All of which is great for party morale — but not necessarily for expectations management. Luckily former party leader Sir Ming Campbell has been on hand…

Sir Menzies Campbell says party is not complacent over by-election prospects (Southern Daily Echo)
… Sir Menzies said: “We don’t contemplate disasters, or losing. We are not in any sense complacent, that’s why we are working as hard as we are, putting so many resources into this by-election.” Asked why residents should vote for Mr Thornton, Sir Menzies said: “Mike brings a lot of local knowledge, he brings a lot of common sense. I think he would be an outstanding representative for Eastleigh.”

Tory campaign crashes, quite literally

The Tory party campaign has had another stuttering day. It’s not just their candidate, Maria Hutchings, who continues to generate headlines for the wrong reasons — though she has:

By-election Tory blasted PM over Lib Dem coalition (The Sun)
THE Tory candidate in the Eastleigh by-election blasted David Cameron over his decision to go into coalition with the Lib Dems, The Sun has learned. Maria Hutchings said in an online rant after the 2010 general election the PM’s move was a “sell-out”. The Tory hopeful, joined on the campaign trail by Home Secretary Theresa May yesterday, also called it “a pact with the devil”. Mrs Hutchings lost to shamed Lib Dem Chris Huhne in the seat in 2010. She wrote in another post at the time: “The Lib Dems have a reduction in seats and yet they might help govern Britain — INSANE.”

– but it’s also the Tories’ campaign software (Merlin) letting them down, as PoliticsHome’s Paul Waugh revealed today:

I’ve been passed an email showing that there could be more trouble ahead. The Tory party’s voter contact system has crashed and could be out of action for THREE WEEKS. The letter from co-chairman Andrew Feldman suggests that the blunder could not have come at a worse time.

(The Tories report that all is now well with Merlin again.)

Perhaps the worse news for the Tories was contained in the anecdotal footnote to Paul’s story:

The Times today reports that polling for the UK Independence Party suggested that the Lib Dems had a lead of up to ten points over the Tories. But just as worrying perhaps, one Tory suggested that the gap was nearer seven points.

Lib Dem / Tory green spaces row

On the backfoot, the Tories have come out swinging, arguing the Lib Dems are “facing both ways on development” by voting for a planning application that will create new houses while promising to protect green spaces. The reality is, Lib Dem-inclined readers won’t be surprised to learn, very different:

eastleigh houses golf courses

Lib Dems welcome moves to save Eastleigh Borough from Conservative in-filling (Eastleigh Lib Dems)
Eastleigh Liberal Democrats last night saved scores of green spaces in the borough from the threat of Conservative-inspired concreting over – while the Tory by-election candidate stayed silent. Members of a borough planning committee voted in favour of a development of 1,400 homes in Boorley Green on land being sold off by the local golf course, including a new primary school, shop and sewage and road improvements. By doing so they ensured that swathes of green spaces between villages in the borough were saved from the threat of Conservative Planning Minister Nick Boles’ desire to concrete over countryside.

This follows the ultimatum that Lib Dem Eastleigh council leader Keith House delivered to Nick Boles yesterday:

“The Conservative Planning Minister has called for building on open land and attacked ‘hysterical scaremongering of latter-day Luddites’ who oppose it – is that why the Tories are running scared of him coming to Eastleigh? They have to answer a simple question – who speaks for the Tories on planning? If it’s their own planning minister, why won’t he come to Eastleigh to see the Liberal Democrats putting his instructions into action? Does he back Maria Hutchings or himself? The Liberal Democrats have a record of delivering responsible for development in Eastleigh. The Conservatives only have a record of irresponsible scaremongering.”

And finally

Labour’s John O’Farrell, currently tipped to wind up fourth trailing Ukip and who was subject to fierce scrutiny yesterday, was today the subject of yet more fiercesome scrutiny — this time from Telegraph sketch-writer Michael Deacon: Don’t vote for ‘joke candidates’… says John O’Farrell

Ever wondered how visits from political ‘big hitters’ are stage-managed for the cameras? Here’s how, courtesy of Sian Davies of the Southern Daily Echo: A ridiculous world of controlling press officers and restrictions on the Eastleigh campaign trail

And a heartening tweet to conclude…

This is the sixth of my round-ups of news from Eastleigh. Here are the first five:

And you can read my Co-Editor Mark Pack’s rounds-up on his site here.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.