Today finally brought some good news for British prime minister David Cameron, and for forces of moderation more generally. The Conservatives held off a challenge from the UK Independence Party to hold the seat of Newark in a by-election by the relatively comfortable margin of 7,400 votes.
Tory candidate Robert Jenrick finished with 45.0% of the vote, down on the 53.9% that his party won in 2010 but still well above expectations. UKIP came second on 25.9% (up from 3.8%), with Labour third on 17.7% (down from 22.3%).
As is becoming normal, it was a disaster for the Liberal Democrats, who took 20% of the vote in 2010 but this time could only manage sixth place with 2.6% – behind the Greens and an independent, although still clear of Nick the Flying Brick from the Monster Raving Loony Party, who garnered 0.4%. Turnout was a respectable 52.8%.
It certainly doesn’t mean the end of UKIP as a threat, but following the shock of last month’s European parliament election, when UKIP topped the polls in Britain and pushed the Conservatives into third place, it will give Cameron a valuable morale boost. The threat of a large wave of UKIP MPs who would hold the balance of power after next year’s election has receded.
Nonetheless, the real danger for the Tories is not so much in seats like Newark, but in marginals where a substantial leakage of votes to UKIP could deliver seats to Labour. (A threat that of course would be much less potent if Cameron had accepted the change to preferential voting as proposed in the 2011 referendum.)
The problem is compounded by the fact that many Conservative MPs are obviously closer to UKIP in their views than they are to Cameron. Indeed, one could argue that UKIP has already done its major damage, by pushing Cameron further into an anti-European position in an attempt to appease its voters. Today’s result might get taken as an indication that that strategy is working.
It’s a mistake to think that appeasement never works. John Howard’s anti-refugee policies seemed to contribute to the decline of One Nation after 1998, and Nicolas Sarkozy probably depressed the vote of France’s National Front in a similar fashion. But it’s a risky move at best, and the moral compromises that it involves are difficult to live down.
Newark, however, might give Cameron a little breathing space in which to decide just how far down the extremist road he’s willing to go.