LONDON – David Cameron's Conservative Party suffered an embarrassing defeat Friday when an insurgent, anti-European Union Party knocked his party into third place in a special election.
The special election result in the southern England town of Eastleigh gives the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP, a new burst of publicity and could tempt Cameron — a centrist who has adopted traditionally left-wing causes including green energy and gay marriage — to veer further to the right.
"The Conservative Party are going to have to completely rethink their strategy," said Gerry Stoker, a professor of politics and governance at the nearby University of Southampton. "They cannot afford to ignore UKIP. This indicates that they are a serious threat."
British by-elections are a prime time for protest votes and regularly produce upsets, but they're closely watched by pundits and pollsters for signs of voter sentiment. Consigned to an embarrassing No. 3 finish in a town where they've historically been competitive, the Conservatives will now be trying to piece together why voters abandoned them in favor of a marginal party whose animating force is anti-EU sentiment. The central part of its platform calls for Britain to withdraw from the EU.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage told BBC radio that Cameron failed because "traditional Tory voters look at Cameron and they ask themselves: "Is he a Conservative?' And they conclude: 'No, he's not.' He's talking about gay marriage, wind turbines, unlimited immigration from India. He wants Turkey to join the European Union."
Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Conservative stalwart Norman Tebbit suggested that there might be something to that.
"Perhaps the most obvious lesson for Mr. Cameron is that if a party leader kicks his own supporters often enough they will kick back," Tebbit wrote.
There was better news for Cameron's coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, who won the election.
The contest was kicked off when Chris Huhne, a senior Liberal Democrat lawmaker, resigned in disgrace after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice — by getting his then-wife to take the penalty for his speeding violation.
The Liberal Democrats' efforts to hang onto Huhne's seat in Eastleigh were further complicated by the party leadership's stumbling reaction to allegations that former chief executive Chris Rennard inappropriately touched and propositioned several women.
Stoker said the low turnout of 53 percent pointed to a wider disillusionment with mainstream politicians and an economy which has been stuck in the doldrums for years.
"Half of the population of Eastleigh said: 'I can't be bothered to vote,'" said Stoker. "This is a deeply disenchanted electorate."
Raphael Satter can be reached at: http://raphae.li/twitter