If you hate the Lib Dems and desperately want to see them humiliated, it would be hard to orchestrate a better set of circumstances than the Eastleigh by-election. Chris Huhne, his personal life poked and prodded in the papers, resigned with very little integrity left, denying his guilt for as long as he could get away with before pleading guilty to perverting the course of justice. And the coalition is more unpopular now than it was when the Lib Dems were decimated in other local elections. The case for the Lib Dem partnership with the Conservatives has always been pleaded to their voters on the basis that it is, or was, necessary to deal with the economic crisis. George Osborne’s shrivelled economic performance makes it harder all the time for Lib Dems to explain to their voters, their supporters, and their own members, why they ever made the decision to participate in such a disadvantageous political arrangement.

 And yet, the Liberal Democrats are currently outstripping the Tories in Eastleigh polls. The Conservatives are running a painfully hopeless campaign; even their popular cuddlies like Boris Johnson are reportedly getting a grim and frosty response from the locals when they turn up to pitch in.

The heavy, negative campaigning against Mike Thornton, the Lib Dem candidate, simply isn’t working in the way it did during, say, the AV referendum.

Tim Montgomerie writes about the Tory strategy in Eastleigh on ConservativeHome: “The Tory literature focuses very heavily on Maria and is also quite old-Tory in its themes.

There was a lot of emphasis on opposing development, the In/Out vote on Europe, controlling immigration and cutting welfare costs.”

Meanwhile, the Lib Dems seem much keener than before to fight the election with their left hand, so to speak. It’s an interesting snippet of a glance into how 2015 might look, when the two parties go head-to-head in all the Tory-Lib Dem marginal seats, but perhaps it can also be analysed as a road-testing of a new, post-UKIP rise strategy on the part of the Conservatives?

If that’s true, and the Lib Dems do hold the seat, it will be interesting to see whether the Tories get the message and recognise that, however much the right of the party dislikes it, most people in the UK simply do not have virulently anti-gay marriage views, or a quiet fetish for privatising the NHS, or a belief that they’re victimised because they’re not allowed to chase small animals on horseback anymore.

It would be a mistake for the Tories to ignore the threat of UKIP entirely; even if UKIP got as little as 6% of the vote in 2015, if it was in the right constituencies, it could still be enough to split the Tory vote so as to cost them the seats they need for a majority. But UKIP are polling at 3% in Eastleigh. Maria Hutchings is a candidate who may win back the votes of disillusioned Tories-cum-UKIP fantasists. But she won’t win over many ex-Liberal Democrats.

Where to start with Maria Hutchings? Hutchings is staunchly is pro-life, and worse, she’s an authoritarian statist about it. When asked in 2008 by the Guardian whether she would have supported the proposed reduction in the time limit for abortions, and if so, by how much, they report her as calling for a 10 week limit, and saying: “”I am a pro-lifer and would have voted to reduce it as far as possible.”

She is hideously gaffe-prone (“I don’t care about refugees, I care about my son.”). She is anti-equal marriage, and she claimed she couldn’t send her son to a state school because he was “gifted” and wanted to be a brain surgeon. She didn’t turn up for a debate, and then claimed it was because she had to be at a factory event, even though it would almost certainly have been perfectly possible to attend both.

 If the Tories lose in Eastleigh it should be a lesson to them for 2015, and the lesson is surely that they are not doing badly in the polls because of equal marriage, maintained levels of spending on international development, and a high top rate of tax. They are doing badly because a lot of people do not associate them with the values they want in politicians.

Tim Montgomerie has articulated this well in the past; that the Tories need to convince people they are a compassionate party, and that conservative (with a small c as well as a big C) values are for everybody, not just the privileged. Montgomerie draws a distinction between the party being unpopular because it is seen as too right wing – which he insists it is not – and the party being unpopular because it is seen as being predominantly on the side of the wealthy – which he agrees is a problem the party faces. He may be right, but are there really enough floating voters, in marginal constituencies, who also draw this distinction?

Would a win for the Liberal Democrats in Eastleigh indicate that there are not? Perhaps it would. But perhaps it also suggests something else: that the Tories can no longer rely on their yellow shield anymore. The anger and frustration that has been directed towards the Liberal Democrats for so long is, slowly but surely, being turned on the dominant party. The Conservative right will have to face up to the fact that the Liberal Democrat policies, and the policies of the Tory modernisers, like equal marriage, raising the tax threshold, and the possibility of a mansion tax, are not the ones that are causing public disgust. The Liberal Democrats are not public enemy number one anymore. The Tories are.

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