The Conservatives enter the Eastleigh by-election campaign with a narrow lead over the Liberal Democrats. A poll I conducted over the two evenings immediately following Chris Huhne’s resignation put the Tories on 34%, with the Lib Dems on 31% and Labour on 19%. The result shows that both coalition parties have everything to play for in the three weeks to polling day on 28 February.
Though the Conservative share is six points lower than the 40% achieved at the 2010 election, the Lib Dems are down sixteen points and Labour are up nine. UKIP start with 13%, also up nine points since 2010.
There is some more encouraging news for the Tories. Conservative voters are the most likely to be sure how they will vote, and Lib Dems who say they may change their minds are more likely to switch to the Tories than any other party. However, Labour voters are more likely to be open to changing, and are more likely to move to the Lib Dems if they do.
Only a fifth of Eastleigh voters would rather see Ed Miliband as Prime Minister than David Cameron, and the Conservatives lead on getting the economy growing and creating jobs, as well as dealing with the deficit.
Though voters in the constituency are on balance pessimistic about prospects for the economy over the next few years, they back the coalition’s ‘Plan A’ for deficit reduction by a wide margin.
Moreover, voters tend to credit these policies to the Conservatives, not their junior partners. Only just over a fifth of Lib Dem voters think their party has much influence within the coalition – indeed Conservative voters are more than twice as likely to think Nick Clegg is influential than his own supporters. Overall, Cameron and Osborne are more trusted to run the economy than Miliband and Balls by a wide margin – but Lib Dem voters are no more likely to choose the government team when Nick Clegg is mentioned alongside his coalition colleagues.
If voters see the campaign in terms of national issues, then, the Conservatives are in a very strong position. But as always, the Liberal Democrats will focus on the local. This is where the danger lies. Two thirds of Eastleigh voters – including a majority of Tories and 97% of Lib Dems – agree that “the Lib Dems do a good job locally in my area”. It is notable that despite the Conservative lead in voting intention, half the constituency’s voters expect the Lib Dems to win the by-election; indeed, Conservatives are more likely to expect this than a Tory victory.
Winning a seat from the Liberal Democrats is much easier when the incumbent is out of the picture. But Eastleigh has been in Lib Dem hands for a long time, and the party has a strong local government base in the borough. Huhne was a popular and, by all accounts, assiduous MP, and many in Eastleigh will be sad both to see him go, and about the circumstances of his departure. The Tories should not expect many to switch out of disgust.
So: the Conservatives, with an initial lead and reasonable support for their national performance, versus the Liberal Democrats on home territory. This is going to be bruising – but fascinating.