PRIME Minister David Cameron was under attack from within his own party last night, after the UK Independence Party pushed the Conservatives into third place in the Eastleigh by-election.
• Lib Dem candidate secures 1,771 majority
• Conservatives 1,000 voted behind Ukip
The Liberal Democrats landed what Nick Clegg said was a “stunning victory”, but it was the surprise second place polled by Ukip that heaped humiliation on the Tories.
The result was seen as a clear sign that the Prime Minister’s efforts to win over eurosceptics by offering an in/out referendum on European Union membership had failed. However, he dismissed the result as a mid-term protest vote and insisted he would try to “win back the support of the people”.
Last night Tories piled criticism on him. Conservative vice-chairman Michael Fabricant, who was heavily involved in the campaign in the Hampshire constituency, directly contradicted Mr Cameron and warned support for Ukip could not be dismissed as a protest vote.
Meanwhile, the surge in the Ukip vote – the best Westminster election result yet for the party in terms of share of the vote – was welcomed by leader Nigel Farage as a “massive boost” for his party ahead of English county council elections in May and next year’s European Parliament polls – when he said Ukip would cause “an earthquake” in British politics.
“People will say it was a protest vote, but who we attracted here were non-voters who had not voted for 20 years – they are not protest votes,” he said.
Mr Farage, who had pondered standing himself, said he would not have done any better than candidate Diane James and joked: “If the Conservatives hadn’t split our vote we’d have won, wouldn’t we?”
Tories should blame their poor result not on Ukip – which also picked up votes from Labour and Lib Dems – but on their leader, he said.
“The Conservatives failed here because traditional Tory voters look at Cameron and they ask themselves ‘Is he a Conservative?’ and they conclude ‘No, he’s not’,” Mr Farage said.
In an unusual move where an office-bearing member of the Tory party is openly critical of the leadership, Mr Fabricant said on Twitter: “The Conservative voice is muffled and not crisp. It does not clearly project Conservative core policies or principles.
“With Ukip clearly announcing policies the public want to hear, we must do the same. 26 months to go [to the next general election] boys and girls…”
Other Tories were also openly critical. MP Eleanor Laing, who described herself as having been “utterly loyal” during her parliamentary career, said many Tories felt “hurt” by the way they were treated by the leadership.
“They feel hurt and they feel left out,” she said. “They’re told that they’re old-fashioned and they think that they don’t matter and that what they stand for, and what they believe in, doesn’t matter.”
She said MPs were “in despair” about the number of people resigning from the party.
“Inevitably, when the fortunes of the party are not as good as they ought to be, then there is some disquiet,” she added.
Another MP, Douglas Carswell, said there were “policy lessons” to be learned and questioned why the party was on a “long march of defeat”.
He said: “I would like us to do far more to focus on the bread-and-butter issue of the cost of living. I think living standards are declining.
“We talk about only a protest vote. One of the reasons why people feel inclined to protest is because they are hurting in their pocket.”
Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan said the Tories and Ukip should start “having conversations” about ways to avoid splitting the eurosceptic vote, and called for the parties to “stop calling each other names”.
Mr Cameron once famously branded Ukip supporters “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”.
The Prime Minister’s former party leadership rival, David Davis, had warned that a bad result in Eastleigh would mean Mr Cameron would be forced to listen more to his back-benchers.
The Hampshire seat is one of a list of 20 Lib Dem-held constituencies Tories believe are crucial for the party to win in 2015 to secure an outright majority.
Mr Cameron said: “It is a disappointing result for the Conservative Party, but it is clear that, in mid-term by-elections, people want to register a protest.
“But I am confident that at the general election we can win those people back by demonstrating that we are delivering for everyone who wants to work hard and wants to get on. That is what we will be focused on.”
He insisted the Tories would not move to the right to encourage voters back from Ukip, saying: “I don’t think we should tack this way, tack that way.”
Mr Cameron promised to continue cutting the deficit, helping people “who work hard”, reforming welfare and cutting immigration.
He said: “That is my agenda. That is their agenda. This is a by-election. It’s mid-term. It’s a protest.
“It’s disappointing for the Conservative Party, but we must remain true to our principles, true to our course, and that way we can win people back.”
The Lib Dem victory came despite a turbulent week for the party, amid allegations it failed to deal with claims of sexual harassment levelled at its former master strategist, Lord Rennard.
Mike Thornton won the poll – triggered by the resignation of the party’s disgraced former minister Chris Huhne – with 13,342 votes, a majority of 1,771 over Ukip’s Diane James, who said beating the Tories was a “humongous” shock and represented a “seismic shift” in UK politics.
Mr Clegg said the message for Lib Dems from the poll was that “we can be in government and still win”. He told activists in Eastleigh: “We held our nerve, we stood our ground… we overcame the odds and we won a stunning victory.”
Tory candidate Maria Hutchings polled 10,559 votes.
Labour’s candidate, author John O’Farrell, won 4,088 votes. Party leader Ed Miliband said: “This was always going to be a tough fight for Labour.”