Newark by-election: Why does it matter so much to the Conservatives?

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June 4, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith

In the 2010 General Election, Patrick Mercer got 54% of the vote in his Newark constituency, winning by over 16,000 votes. So you would have thought the Conservative party wouldn’t be worried about Thursday’s by-election there which follows Mercer’s resignation  after a ‘cash for questions’ controversy. Yet David Cameron has been to the constituency no fewer than four times since the by-election was announced, and it seems the entire Conservative election machine has been rolled into the constituency. Why is this so?

The first reason is that the Conservatives need to win, and they need to win well. They need to get at the very least 40% of the vote, but every vote less than the 54% Mercer got in 2010 will be scrutinized. They have just finished third in a national election for the first time in their entire history (the EU Parliament elections), and they need to retain some momentum for the next year, as sometimes a party who is struggling electorally can lose votes because of that (this is called the ‘bandwagon effect’). So firstly, they need to get that bandwagon back on track.

The second reason is that UKIP are putting up such a strong fight. Yes, they might have done even better had Nigel Farage stood rather than Roger Helmer – who looks (on paper as well in real life) as if he was cut out from a caricature of a UKIP candidate. Farage didn’t stand, I believe, because he was in a no win situation. If he didn’t win, he would be seen as a failure, which isn’t ideal when UKIP need some momentum, and Mercer’s majority would have been a massive ask. But possibly worse would have been if he did win – because he would almost certainly have lost the General election in 2015 in that seat when people weren’t voting as they do in a by-election.

Make no mistake, people vote differently in by-elections than they do in General elections. By-elections don’t result in a change in government. By-elections allow what seems like a free hit protest vote. Whatever gains are made by UKIP in Newark are because so many people are disillusioned with politics at the moment that they are using this as a chance to register that disillusionment in a more concrete way (see here for my concerns on this). Will Roger Helmer make a better MP than the Conservative candidate Robert Jenrick (also, frankly cut from a classic Tory candidate cloth)? I’m not sure many of those who are voting UKIP in this by-election care. But the Tories know many are planning to, and that is why David Cameron has been there four times when he should be running the country instead.

We will learn very little from a Tory win in Newark in terms of their chances at the 2015 General election. It’s a bit thinking England will win the World Cup because they have beaten an experimental and weak Peru side in a friendly. It will be more interesting to see just how far the Lib Dems fall having got 10,000 votes at the 2010 election there (here’s a clue – David Bishop from the ‘Bus Pass Elvis’ party is standing in the by-election after BEATING the Lib Dem candidate in a recent local authority by-election). It might be interesting to see how Labour do – although to be honest they have sensibly not got massively involved in a by-election they have no chance of winning. But it’s been a bit of fun for the political junkies – although not as much fun for Patrick Mercer – who must have thought he had thrust the final knife in the back of the Leader he once described as ‘despicable’. Friday awaits!

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