Conservatives have lost their way in the Europe debate

James Willby

The debate on Europe within the Conservative Party is going from bad to worse. Beginning with the Business Secretary comparing current Conservative rhetoric to the speeches of Enoch Powell, to the revelation that the Prime Ministers rhetoric is causing enormous disquiet amongst our colleagues in the European parliament, with the leader of the Polish delegation telling David Cameron that unless his rhetoric on EU migration changes, it will be very difficult for them to continue working with us. Rather than seeking allies for EU reform, we’re giving a wonderful performance in the art of losing friends and alienating everyone we come into contact with. But it goes further than that. Something seems to have gone wrong at the heart of this party of ours.

In defense of my argument I’d like to offer you two substantive pieces of evidence: the EU referendum bill and the atrocious rhetoric that was directed at Bulgarian and Romanian migrants.

At the time the referendum bill was announced, I remarked to a MP that I was against it. We’d already said we’d hold a referendum in 2017 if elected, so why legislate for it now? When pressed, he explained that in the light of the Lisbon Treaty, there needed to be some form of gesture to show people we were serious about giving them a vote on Europe.  While it is of course true that one cannot vote on a treaty that has been signed, the ghost of David Cameron’s “cast iron guarantee” continues to haunt party strategists. The idea behind supporting the Wharton referendum bill, I was told, was to show we meant business and win back disaffected support. It seemed a sensible way forward. However, the threats to use the Parliament Act to force the bill into law show, in my opinion, the unpalatable truth behind the campaign to “Let Britain Decide”.

This isn’t about letting anyone have his or her say. The Wharton referendum bill is nothing less than a grubby political trap, designed to ensnare a future Labour government whilst trampling on what was – hitherto – a key principle of our democratic system: that governments may not bind the hand of their successor and that none should attempt to do so. It is not in the British national interest, but in the perceived electoral interest of the Conservative party. By putting the bill into law now, the party is attempting to booby-trap the first two years of a Miliband premiership, either forcing him to hold a referendum he opposes or cry foul when he repeals the bill. It is grossly transparent, full of short-termism, and wrong.

It is this same toxic mix that has led to the some of most disheartening debates on EU migration that I can remember, culminating in the parliamentary debate on Bulgaria and Romania. It was not pleasant. We were, we were told, importing a crime wave from Bulgaria and Romania. Some MPs even went as far as pledging to man the desks at Stanstead airport on the 1st January, allowing them to interrogate new arrivals from these countries. It is hysteria of a type that would make Joseph McCarthy proud. If Dominic Grieve can be forced to apologize for suggesting corruption is endemic to the Pakistani community, how can it be right for MPs to make such comments about Bulgarians and Romanians?

The Bulgarians and Romanians I know personally are hard-working decent people, but understandably aggrieved at the way they are being castigated by our party. And so to them, on behalf of the quiet, sensible majority, I’d like to say I’m sorry. I’m sorry that you are being so odiously used by members of my party. I’m sorry that the fear of UKIP has made the supporters of European enlargement turn their back on the principles they once defended. The Bulgarian President is entirely right to say this debate risks damaging the UK’s image as a tolerant and open nation. As the Economist has already stated, you are very welcome here. I hope many of you will come and lend your talents to our country and that our party will finally see the opportunity you represent. You see, if the Conservative party really wanted to prevent a victory UKIP in 2014, it could simply ask for your vote. Rather than telling you what a problem you are, we should tell you we appreciate your service to this nation and invite you to join us on the path of EU reform.

This fact – that EU migrants have the same voting rights as UK nationals – has been completely absent from our internal debate. Were we to mobilize them effectively in our favour, UKIP’s hope of winning the European elections would be dashed. As to its likelihood I’m not hopeful, but who knows?

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Let’s be honest, quitting the EU would harm our foreign policy

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Aaron Ellis

Speaking at Chatham House the other day, Senator Marco Rubio declared that it ought to be up to Britain to decide its relationship with the European Union regardless of transatlantic considerations. “[Y]our American partners should respect whatever decision you make. Our alliance, our partnership, and our affection for your nation will continue regardless of the road you choose.” The reaction of many ‘Europhobes’ highlighted again why I would probably vote for us to stay in the EU if the referendum was held today – the better-off-out position exists in a foreign policy vacuum.

Typically, whenever Europhobes stray outside the national sovereignty vs. supranational governance debate into the wider world, it is to try to outflank the Europhiles. For example, the claim that the Commonwealth can be an alternative trading bloc is an attempt to undermine the economic case for staying in the EU. Yet the hysterical reaction to critical comments made by U.S. officials, amongst many others, shows just how isolated they are from foreign affairs.

Many seized on the words of Mr. Rubio, contrasting them with those of Obama officials. When Philip Gordon, the Assistant Secretary for European affairs, said that he wanted to see “a strong United Kingdom in a strong European Union”, it was part of a pattern of ‘bullying’ according to Tim Stanley. John Redwood wrote that the United States wanted us to be ‘subservient’ to Brussels, betraying the values that underpin their hard-won republic. Nile Gardiner, who advised the Romney campaign, claimed that this would never have happened had his candidate won the White House last year – even arguing that ‘Britain’s policy on Europe is none of President Obama’s business.’ If increasing tension between close U.S. allies is none of Mr. Obama’s business, then, by implication, he shouldn’t involve himself in the Falklands dispute – a regular bugbear of Mr. Gardiner’s…

Rather than simply a restatement of a position that the United States has held for decades, all this is a further manifestation of the visceral hatred that Mr. Obama supposedly feels for our country.

Yet had Tim and others looked more closely, they would have seen that both Gordon and Rubio more or less said the same thing. Like the former, the senator emphasised that he wanted a strong EU, which he sees as both “a stabilizing force on the continent” and “an effective [American] partner on key international issues”. Like Mr. Rubio, Mr. Gordon emphasised that Britain’s relationship with Brussels was ultimately a matter for us to decide. He is a Democrat, of course, whereas the senator is a Republican, which for some on the right makes a world of difference.  

Europhobes’ hysterical reaction to the foreign policy implications of withdrawal makes me reluctant to buy into the Better Off Out campaign. They have no real alternative for the influence that Britain currently enjoys due to its dominance of the European External Action Service (EAS).

Our diplomats were instrumental in drafting the 2010 declaration that made the Service subservient to the foreign policies of the Member States – effectively, the foreign policies of Britain and France. As of last year, six of the most senior positions in the EAS are held by British diplomats on temporary secondment. Given our large foreign policy apparatus and expertise in a wide range of international issues, Britain is best placed to occupy the one-third of EAS positions that are reserved for the officials of Member States and use them to push the EU in directions we want it to go.

This will be important to Mr. Rubio should he become either President or Vice-President after 2016. EAS currently controls the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), which tries to bring those on the continent’s periphery into the EU’s orbit – like Ukraine. In his speech, the senator argued that both Brussels and Washington needed to “ensure that those on Europe’s periphery who still desire to join the Western community of democracies retain the option if they meet the entry requirements.” Yet if it was not for Britain, the union might not be as large as it is today, and a Christie-Rubio administration would want us to stay in it in order to continue pushing back Russian influence.

In his speech, Mr. Rubio also emphasised the importance of NATO and yet without Britain to keep the EU committed to the Alliance, then it might, as David Cameron once warned, just “fade away.” With Britain gone, there would be renewed effort on a specifically EU security arrangement, which would duplicate the work of NATO and dissipate the energies of both organisations. In my mind’s eye, I can see a very serious-looking Vice-President Rubio standing next to Deputy Prime Minister Ed Davey, telling the assembled journalists that Britain in the EU was vital to American interests.

Leaving the European Union would negatively affect our foreign policy, but rather than offering any alternatives or explaining why taking this hit to our influence is a necessary price for our freedom, the better-off-outers act like Scottish nationalists and attack anyone who criticises them. They attack not only namby-pamby Europhiles, but also the likes of Sir Geoffrey Howe and Radoslaw Sikorski – neither of whom are Britain-hating, probably Kenyan socialists.

The greatest historian of our Party, Lord Blake, once wrote that a characteristic feature of successful Tory governments is ‘a “patriotic” foreign policy…judiciously tempered by liberal internationalism.’ Perhaps trying to emulate our Republican cousins, some Conservatives have spurned international institutions like the EU and the UN; seeing them as threats to be countered, not tools to be used. Rather than emulating the Austrian statesman Metternich – reforming the EU from the inside, as Mr. Sikorski argues – they would rather we left it entirely. That is a reasonable position for them to take, but if Europhobes are going to push for our withdrawal then they need to man up and smarten up on foreign affairs.

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The Conservative Party ought to be proud of the Wharton Bill

Gareth Milner

In years to come people may ask where you were on Friday the 29th of November 2013. Regardless of where you were, I can tell you what one man was up to: James Wharton MP was at the end of the trying, troublesome and often tiring journey of a Private Members bill through the House of Commons.

Several people within the Westminster bubble had a genuine belief that the EU referendum bill would not make it this far. Yet things are still not as certain as they could be, the bill still needs to make it through the House of Lords.

The completion of this bill’s journey through the Commons brings two important questions to my mind. How did Conservative whips keep the rank and file in check? Does the leader of the opposition require an Elizabethan collar? It’s exactly what they give dogs to stop them from licking wounds. You can only imagine how many sore wounds someone has after sitting on the fence for so long. If you looked at the results of the various votes on the EU referendum bill, you will clearly see there hasn’t been much of an opposition at all.

There has of course been various questions which have permeated debate surrounding this issue, one of which was the timing of the referendum. This issue included the aborted amendment brought by Adam Afriyie, along with several calls from UKIP – who, whilst riding high in the polls, still don’t even have a foldable camp chair at the table.

Such discussions however, leave somewhat of a confused thought in my mind and I honestly can’t tell what annoys UKIP more. Are UKIP more annoyed that the referendum is planned to take place in 2017 instead of 2014, or is it that the House of Commons has passed a bill to give the people a referendum. Such a referendum that as things stand, UKIP can ask for, though they have not the power to bring into effect. Is it sour grapes, or are UKIP concerned that after a referendum it may appear somewhat meaningless having “independence” in their name?

The very fact that the EU Referendum Bill found its genesis in the Private Members Bill ballot, is what makes current events so very special. All too often politicians are perceived to cause pain and anguish by the very act of playing game theory with politics. In this case had it not been for James Wharton, Conservative whips and the Prime Minister bringing his game face to the table, this might never have happened.

My position on the EU is not for complete withdrawal, nor do I think that leaving things as they are is an ideal solution either. I would like to see some reform before anything happens in terms of a referendum, hence my personal preference for 2017. Yet putting my personal views to one side, there is agreement within different parts of the Conservative Party on a certain aspect. This agreement concerns the very fact that we are the single party driving forward, striving to give the people a referendum to choose the future of their country.

I am by no means a psychologist or any kind of expert who can safely assess what is going through the mind of the Labour Party and its MPs. I can however take a leaf out of their guide book on economics, namely the act of making SWAGs (serious wide a***d guesses). Taking the evidence I have and allowing my neurons to fire with the speed of a thousand gazelles laced on caffeine, what I saw of the opposition side of the debate leaves me with three simple words; FILIBUSTER, FILIBUSTER, FILIBUSTER. If Labour MPs were so against this bill, why were there not more votes against it?

The reason there wasn’t more Labour votes is because even they are sensible enough to not vote against a bill which is offering a referendum to the people. This smacks of nothing less than desperation. Despite the risks involved, no matter what you may think of the Conservative leadership, I believe they need to be applauded. The “Europe” question is something which in recent years, regularly and consistently reloads the party “blame thrower”. The blame thrower does nothing more than burn each and every one of us, allowing the media and the opposition to circle like vultures. Regardless of your views on the referendum, many people within the UK want it and the party leadership and the whips have worked hard to bring the bill this far.

Of course the journey of the EU Referendum Bill is not yet complete, it may very well suffer further acts of blustery filibustering at the hands of Lords within the upper chamber. However, the House of Commons is the democratically elected chamber of the people. If this bill is gutted in the Lords, I’d be worried if members of the public were not anxious or concerned. Especially when a system they once thought was democratic, had stolen away the chance of a referendum. Both the pro and anti EU lobby will have to prepare for what to do should the result of a referendum not go their way, though I only hope we can draw a line under it once and for all.

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The Conservative Party needs a radical European vision

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David Cowan

The Conservatives’ European policy is settled. If David Cameron wins a majority at the next General Election, his government will hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union by 2017. Who knows what luck the Prime Minister will have with his rengotiation strategy, or how it will play out when Tories are campaigning against each other over whether or not we are better off out. Your guess is as good as mine. But Labour and the Liberal Democrats are on the back foot, and the grassroots love Mr. Cameron - well, dislike him less - for it.

But there is one thing people, especially Europhobes, have tended not to think seriously about. What if the British people vote to stay in the EU? Most Better Off Out-ers just assume that given the chance they will vote to leave. What if they don’t? We would be stuck with the status quo of ‘ever closer union’. The Europhobic right would totally collapse. UKIP would lose their raison d’etre. Britain’s membership of the EU would be ‘case closed’ for decades, much like it was after the 1975 referendum.Where would this leave the Conservative Party?

For so many years the Conservatives have been defined by a strong hostility towards the EU which has on occasion come close to borderline hysteria. Memories of Winston Churchill’s speeches in favour of a ‘United Europe’ (though his own view of Britain’s role in such an entity is still somewhat ambiguous), the Conservatives’ key role in shaping many fundamental European institutions, are now just an old, jaded memory which has failed to capture the imagination of a new generation of Conservatives.

This has left the Party very ill-prepared for the eventuality of the British people rejecting withdrawal from the EU. So far the Tory case for staying in the EU has been negative and timid in that the emphasis has been on reclaiming powers and reversing changes rather than improving and reforming institutional structures. If we want to be in a solid position should the Eurosceptic argument be defeated at the ballot box then they must have a positive vision for Britain’s future in Europe.

What would such a vision look like? The key principles at its heart must be economic and political liberty. A positive Conservative vision for EU reform has to fight for a less regulated, protectionist, subsidised, and taxed single market which can compete in the global economy and credibly champion global free trade as the best means of raising the most deprived countries in the world out of poverty. Complementing this would be a serious overhaul of EU structures based on a more decentralised and democratic model which allows competition and innovation to flourish through the people, instead of stagnation and decline as has been the case under the current centralised and bureaucratic model.

If the Conservatives can help forge a new EU which is a community of nations instead of a grandiose federal project, then it can be a more effective force for the pursuit of global peace and prosperity by demonstrating that moderate multilateral means can successfully deliver liberal ends.

It has become abundantly clear that the status quo will not do and ‘ever closer union’ towards a bureaucratic super-state does not bear thinking about. If the British people choose to reject the idea of leaving the EU then the Conservatives must be ready to face the challenge of reforming the EU towards a more liberal, decentralised, and democratic model. But this can only be done when Conservatives are ready to speak out and propose a radical European vision for the 21st century.

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Europe is worth fighting for - maybe not this Europe, but a better Europe is at least worth a try

Nik Darlington 10.30am

This evening the annual Macmillan Lecture is being delivered in Parliament by Damian Green, police minister and TRG vice-president.

Mr Green will state the unequivocal Conservative case for the EU, rejecting clarion calls for an immediate exit yet insisting that the British people are overdue their say on our membership. Giving the Prime Minister his strongest backing, Mr Green will make the case for allowing negotiations to proceed and for an improved settlement to be put to the British people.

Of course, the British people have every right to reject EU membership even then. Conservatives sympathetic to the EU today are not blindly uncritical. Without democratic consent the EU is but a hollow bureaucratic shell. Indeed, a shell that in this day and age looks increasingly like a fossil.

There is a case to be made for the EU, but it has to be made on Conservative principles of free trade and democracy. It is on precisely those principles that the EU’s biggest critics have assumed to abandon the field. Europe is worth fighting for. Maybe not this Europe as it stands (or falls), but a better Europe is at least worth a stab.

Only by calming down shall EU rebels get what they want, or have any colleagues left to share it

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Nik Darlington 9.54am

Yesterday on these pages, Giles questioned whether the Tory party truly wants to resist the UKIP surge, or whether the Tory party in fact embraced it. This morning on ConHome, Paul Goodman questions whether Tory MPs even want to win the next election.

For some “lunatics”, to paraphrase Mr Soames commenting yesterday, this is not wide of the mark. The MP for Ketting, Philip Hollobone (majority 9,094), is insisting on parliamentary time to debate a referendum bill and "if it ends the coalition, so be it".

That would, in all likelihood, end the Tory party’s tenure in office. It would not, in all likelihood, end Mr Hollobone’s tenure in the House of Commons.

There are however many hard-working, bright colleagues who would be sacrificed at the alter of Mr Hollobone’s (and others’) capricious whim.

To recap, John Baron (Basildon & Billericay: majority 12,398) posited a motion criticising the Queen’s Speech for not including an EU Referendum Bill. Coalition with the Liberal Democrats precludes this, however David Cameron has since announced the independent publication of a draft bill that is presumed will be taken on by the first name out of the hat for private members bills.

Mr Baron and supporters - including Peter Bone (Wellingborough: majority 11,787) and the reinstated Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire: majority 15,152) - have extracted this significant concession. Yet they press on. And on. Today’s Times (£) cartoon puts this best.

Has the Prime Minister handled this badly? Of course he has. Should a doomed stand be made against the muddled, undemocratic ranks of the Labour party, the Lib Dems, Greens and the rest? Yes, it should.

Europe is a salient issue for voters and the British people deserve a say on EU membership, pending the Prime Minister’s negotiations. For what it is worth, looking at the status quo, on balance I would vote to stay in; but it would be a close call.

It would not take much to convince me otherwise. The ‘out’ lobby has a war chest of momentum, funding and evidence. The ‘in’ lobby does not. In fact, I fear supporters of EU membership have at worst largely forgotten why they support it, and at best are relying on out-dated evidence.

Nevertheless, Europe is not the most salient issue for voters. It does not even come close. The crucial consideration in this sordid episode is that the Conservative party is being poisoned by myopia, desperation, and fears the wrong enemy.

Lance the boil. Have the debate about a referendum bill. Expose opposing parties. Be done with it.

Demonstrate to voters what this Conservative-led Government has achieved in the realms of welfare reform, schools and immigration; ram home the paucity of Labour’s alternative; press on with vital reforms to healthcare; and continue the hard but necessary work of rebuilding Britain’s economy.

Only by doing so shall the Conservative party have a hope of winning in 2015. Only be doing so shall there be a chance for an EU referendum. And only by doing so shall those MPs in safe seats who yearn for that referendum, have any colleagues left to ensure it.

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All right-thinking Eurosceptics need to get behind David Cameron’s EU negotiations

James Reekie 9.00am

The European Union’s unresolved constitutional status, and the sticking plaster approach of the Lisbon Treaty means that we need some new thinking in order to resolve our qualms over Europe. The Prime Minister can provide this.

Like most people on the centre-right, I am sceptical of increasing European powers. I don’t believe the UK should be outside of the EU, but I do think that Europe needs to change. That is why I welcomed David Cameron’s pledge to renegotiate our place in Europe and put the results of those negotiations to the British people in a referendum. Mr Cameron is providing important leadership in Europe by examining as part of this exercise those parts of the EU that are fundamentally incompatible with not only British values but also those of other Member States. It means that the European political classes will at least begin the debate by asking ‘What powers and competences need to be returned?’ rather than ’ How much state sovereignty can we take from Member States?’. The former question being the one which the British public have been rightfully asking for years.

The slow creep of European power cannot be simply blamed on the ‘bureaucrats in Brussels’ or on the European institutions, for on every European Treaty we find the tacit endorsement of Prime Ministers, Presidents and Foreign Secretaries in what has become a shameless acquiescence in the diminution of parliamentary sovereignty - if not in a theoretical sense then at least in a practical one.

David Cameron has demonstrated that he is no friend of this approach and finally at last, we have a leader in Europe who is actually willing to provide a robust alternative to the ‘integration will solve it’ mantra of the federalists.

However, simply moaning and groaning about Europe won’t solve the problem for us eurosceptics. We must call for a constitutional settlement that reigns in and defines in clear terms the powers and limitations of the European Union and its institutions. There does exist a reasonable approach to the European Union which satisfies our ambitions for free trade and co-operation that does not rely on full blown integration or withdrawal.

Eurosceptics need to take a much more coherent and holistic approach to the EU constitutional debate.

Firstly, by recognising that from its early conception until now the European Union has in fact developed along a distinctly British constitutional tradition. This type of constitutional evolution has made Britain’s constitution distinctive in its flexibility and contributed to our many successes within a state context but it is no remedy for a supranational entity such as the European Union. Of course in a legal and political order such as the European Union this was always going to lead to a constitutional crisis, especially considering there is the sovereignty of member states constitutional traditions to consider.

Secondly, by recognising that our alternative is the one sought by the vast majority of people. The former treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe contained articles on a European flag, anthem and various other nonsensical provisions in order to attempt to garner some sense of constitutional patriotism from citizens of member states, which was completely out of step with the vast majority of the European public. There is little clamour for a federal Europe. So let’s argue for an abandonment of pie in the sky symbolism and advocate a focus on solid constitutional reform.

We hear far too much nowadays of European human rights legislation or the next nanny-state measure to come through Brussels. This leads us to forget the fundamental reason why the European Union exists.

The common market in principle is good for business and good for trade within Europe and internationally. In fact, it is the principles of this common market that may just save us from the absurdity of minimum pricing for alcohol. The common market is not without its faults but the law makers and political leaders of Europe must appreciate that the fundamental premise of the European Union is a Common Market. It is time we got back to something that looks like one.

Thirdly, we need to recognise the European Union for what it is. It isn’t a state and we don’t want it to become a state. I often hear those across the political spectrum talk of the European democratic deficit. Of course the democratic deficit is still far too large but we must also appreciate that if we do not want Europe to become a state we must stop holding it to standards we expect from nation states. We must see it as a unique order which we are responsible for shaping and not leave the left to determine the future of the European Union.

Therefore, governments must also take some responsibility for constitutional collisions when they arise. Often constitutional compatibility issues can be resolved well beforehand but they often lack the political will or courage by both the EU and national parliaments to be tackled head on.

So what next for our relationship with Europe? Depending on the process followed in determining any future treaty, Mr Cameron must ultimately ensure that he plays his full part in leading and maintaining a coalition of centre-right reformists, but most of all he must also ensure that prominent eurosceptics from across Europe are playing their full part in the debate. There has been some interesting thinking about what the process could look like in order to ensure democratic legitimacy for a European constitution which has been decidedly lacking in any.

So far, David Cameron has led the way admirably. Firstly for promising a referendum and secondly for promising a renegotiated settlement to be put forward in that referendum. It’s time for all right-thinking eurosceptics to get on board and shape a European Union settlement that is democratically and constitutionally legitimate.

James Reekie is the Vice-Chairman of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party

Some lessons from Eastleigh for the Tory party

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Giles Marshall 7.37am

That the Liberal Democrats won at all is a minor triumph and let no-one tell you otherwise.

This is a party mired in a truly demeaning scandal, whose media operation looked utterly out of shape and whose leader was subject to the sort of scrutiny usually reserved for pariahs and criminals.

Add to this the fact that Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems enjoy the support of not a single major media outlet, but can count on the active hostility of all of them, and this really does start to look like an extraordinary triumph.

No leader since John Major has received quite such a pasting from the right-wing press, and even then some papers maintained a veneer of regard for the party Major was leading.

No such exceptionalism exists for Nick Clegg. Any triumph he gains, any achievement he chalks up, is and always shall be done in the face of an extraordinary hostility from the media.

So how did the Liberal Democrats win in Eastleigh?  I can offer two reasons.  Number one – their organisation on the ground is excellent.  They have a large number of councillors and activists in Eastleigh and they used feet on the ground to considerable effect.  In the age of big media and social network politics, localism still counts and a motivated ground force can still make the difference.  This is what can rescue the Lib Dems from oblivion in any general election.

Number two – they faced the split opposition of the right, and herein lies a serious problem for the Tories. Eastleigh was a Conservative seat not so very long ago, held by a middle-ground Tory of cautiously pro-European opinions who tragically was subject to personal demons.

In this by-election, conscious of the UKIP threat, the local party fielded Maria Hutchings, who has forthright views on immigration, is a determined Eurosceptic and would have been no Cameron patsy if elected to Parliament. She is the dream candidate for the Tory right.

And she lost. Not marginally. She lost substantially, coming in third behind the party whose image she tried to emulate and whose implicit endorsement she tried to achieve.  

The Tory party will try to garner all sorts of lessons from this defeat and most of them will be wrong. The one thing that should stand out is the reality that the right-wing vote in this country is too small to permit of two competing parties. It is arguably too small to permit of even one successful party.

The Tory party’s split identity is becoming ever more harmful, but that is nothing to the rump it will become if the lesson drawn from Eastleigh is voters desire a more unvarnished brand of Tory rightism.

It seems the party will never be right-wing and Eurosceptic enough to appease UKIP supporters without alienating the crucial centrist vote that all parties need to sustain themselves in government. This is a simple matter of electoral arithmetic.

As for UKIP, they should enjoy their triumph. They didn’t win, but they scored their best by-election result to date.

However, it isn’t quite as great a triumph as Nigel Farage is trumpeting. At a time when both governing parties are massively unpopular, this party of protest failed to wrest a seat from them.

In their heyday, the Social Democratic Party – a party of protest that sought to extract voters from the Labour Party in much the same way as UKIP does from the Tories – managed to pull off extraordinary by-election victories in both Conservative and Labour seats. They did it when the governing Tories were pursuing unpopular economic measures. And they never managed to translate their extraordinary by-election success into general election success, descending into third party misery each time.  

UKIP’s achievement is weaker than the old SDP’s. If Farage’s lot can’t win a seat like Eastleigh in a by-election, with protest votes aplenty, then they shan’t win anything in a general election.

Eastleigh has produced a victor, whatever the gloom that the national pundits may be pronouncing for all parties. That victor, to the dismay of Conservatives, is their coalition partner. It will keep the coalition going, but it offers no hope to the dominant party.

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall