Asked to summarize the mood after last year's round of U.K. political party conferences, Bloomberg's Westminster correspondent Rob Hutton said: "They all think they're going to lose the next election." Judging by the results of a by-election yesterday this collective pessimism, illogical as it may seem, was well-founded.
The vote followed the resignation of Conservative lawmaker Patrick Mercer, when he became embroiled in a lobbying scandal. That forced a contest for his parliamentary seat of Newark, near Sherwood Forest in central England, and there was bad news for all the major parties -- plus one up-and-coming contender -- in the results.
Prime Minister David Cameron's Tory party held on to the constituency, though with a much diminished majority. His coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, saw their share of the vote evaporate. The opposition Labour Party also lost ground, echoing its failure in national polls to take advantage of the disaffection that typically afflicts incumbent governments once they get past the midpoint of their term in office. And Nigel Farage's U.K. Independence Party, the big winner in last month's European elections with its anti-immigration and anti-European Union stance, fell short of seriously threatening to win its first seat at Westminster.
Here's how each party's percentage of the vote changed since the national election in May 2010:
With the next national election a bit less than a year away, in May 2015, UKIP has yet to prove that it has either the infrastructure or the voter support to develop into anything more than a right-wing novelty act. Capturing almost 26 percent of the Newark vote and 27.5 percent at the European elections will prove meaningless if the party fails to cement that success with a Westminster presence in 2015.
Labour's "It's the economy, stupid" message is ringing increasingly hollow as the rising economic tide lifts more people's boats. This week's poll from YouGov puts Labour just six points ahead of the Conservatives, with 37 percent of voters. No margin of error was given. That's a slender lead at this point in the election cycle and suggests party leader Ed Miliband is struggling to garner support.
While the Conservative Party will be relieved to have bested UKIP, its drop in support at Newark to 49 percent from 54 percent in 2010 is hardly a triumph. Flooding the zone with activists and cabinet ministers worked; that army of door-knockers and leaflet-pushers won't be available in all 650 constituencies next year (somewhat fewer if Scotland secedes in between).
The Liberal Democrat Party has the most to fear from the Newark result, after seeing its share of the vote plummet to 2.6 percent from 20 percent. The YouGov poll puts the Lib Dems on just 8 percent of the national vote, compared with the 23 percent it enjoyed in the last national election in 2010.
Soon after the formation of the coalition government, a senior Tory lawmaker told me that the partnership would give his party the opportunity to besmirch their junior partner with every unpopular government policy, while stealing credit for everything else. That tactic, at least, seems to be working.
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