Eastleigh one year on: the by-election which secured Nick Clegg’s leadership

by Stephen Tall on February 28, 2014

A year ago today, Mike Thornton was declared the new Lib Dem MP for Eastleigh.

Clegg Thornton Eastleigh

I’ve just been re-reading my first reflections on the result, written minutes after Mike’s narrow victory over Ukip was confirmed. As I pointed out then, despite the horrendous circumstances surrounding the by-election – Chris Huhne’s resignation, the allegations against Chris Rennard – Eastleigh was a good seat for the Lib Dems to contest owing to our long-standing, entrenched local strength there.

The other night’s victors, I noted, were Ukip: “There must also now be the very real possibility that Ukip could win a by-election if the right seat comes up.” It hasn’t, yet. The Tories were, of course, the clear losers. With their candidate Maria Hutchings pushed into third place, Nigel Farage came up with the soundbite of the night: “If it hadn’t have been for the Conservatives splitting the Ukip vote we might have won.”

But there was another winner from the night who I didn’t mention in that article: Nick Clegg. Because it was the party’s successful defence of Eastleigh which secured his position as Lib Dem leader, giving hope to MPs and activists that we can fight 2015 as an ‘incumbency’ election and survive it. Would Nick have faced a leadership challenge if Mike Thornton had lost? I don’t know. But his victory snuffed out the chance that it would – and I cannot see that changing, even if May’s results are disappointing. By then there will be less than a year to the next general election and the party’s focus will have to be 100% on 7th May 2015.

The Eastleigh win was hailed by party president Tim Farron as the party’s most “important by-election since the war”. At the time, I thought it was hyperbole. Well, it was hyperbole. From Nick Clegg’s perspective, though, Tim was bang on the money.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.