If ever there was a good example of Harold Wilson’s adage that a week is a long time in politics it was yesterday’s by-election in Rochester and Strood.
Taking so long to complete a relatively simple count that I thought Medway Council must be twinned with our own fair city, the result finally came in during the wee sma’ hours and it was in the end no shock.
And yet only a short time ago last month, it seemed that the Conservatives might just hold on to the seat, vacated by Mark Reckless who forced the by-election after defecting to the UK Independence Party.
Unlike Clacton, where I never doubted that Douglas Carswell would hold the seat in his by-election, Rochester & Strood was far more open and there was every prospect that Ukip’s Mark Reckless could lose.
For one thing, while the Conservatives were privately resigned to losing in Clacton due to Carswell’s own personal popularity, they were quite upbeat about winning in Rochester and were promising to throw “the kitchen sink” at their campaign.
Nobody I spoke to doubted there would be an almighty effort to ensure Reckless lost and I have no reason to question that great amounts of money were spent and that large numbers of activists descended on the seat to campaign.
For the Tories this was a must win by-election that they believed they could be victorious in – especially as the prize would be the puncturing of Ukip’s inflating popularity.
With Ukip losing, Tories would stride into 2015 far more confident that they could yet win the general election. That’s how it looked to them.
Labour also thought it was in with a good chance.
Here was a constituency that it had won in 1997 and held in 2001 and 2005, finally losing in 2010. If the Conservatives had a fear, it was that their vote would haemorrhage to Reckless, denying them enough to win while the Labour vote would hold up and come out on top.
With Labour winning in Rochester & Strood, Ed Miliband could at last look like the prime minister in waiting and proclaim Labour as the true opposition party it is expected to be. That’s how it looked, although Labour people were more taciturn about their chances.
I think it is also fair to say that both of these possible outcomes were well understood by the Ukip people. I know and they realised they had a fight on their hands. All of this meant that while the Clacton result was historical – returning the first Ukip member of parliament to be elected – it would be the Rochester result that would be crucial, for it would boost or kill Ukip’s political advance.
How those few weeks have made a difference – so much so that in the end Mark Reckless’s victory became a certainty and the question was about the size of the majority.
The Conservatives’ campaign was nothing short of an abomination, allowing their own personal bitterness towards Reckless to distract them from the job at hand of holding their own supporters and winning over doubters.
A leaflet that derided Reckless for his London upbringing, his good education (Oxford – the alma mater of David Cameron!) and suggesting he was a carpet bagger (when it was the Conservatives that had originally selected him as their candidate!) was especially ill-advised.
All the Tories did was convince a large swathe of their support that the party does not understand them and would take them for granted. How the party chairman holds on to his job is beyond me.
We even had the spectacle of the Prime Minister begging for Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters to vote Conservative to stop Ukip.
For Labour we then had the credibility crisis faced by Ed Miliband as the murmuring about his leadership surfaced and has never quite gone away.
With the worst personal ratings of any party leader in modern times the year before a general election, worse than Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock and Michael Howard or William Hague – and worse than prime minister’s who had lost their original popularity, Miliband had to have a relaunch speech that has already been quickly forgotten.
For the Conservatives we then had the rather synthetic outrage of the Prime Minister about the surcharge of £1.7 billion for membership of the European Union – which helped to disguise the separate figures released at the same time that the net price of UK membership had gone up by £2.74bn. Again, all this did was emphasise how one of Ukip’s key policies is attractive.
So it was no surprise, then, that Mark Reckless with 16,867 beat the Tory on 13,947 by just short of 3000 votes, while Labour’s vote collapsed to 6713 – just 17 per cent.
For the second by-election in a row the Lib Dem polled just one per cent, coming behind the Green on four per cent.
A week is indeed a long time in politics. How long before fresh defectors keep Ukip’s momentum going, knowing that after December 7 no parliamentary by-election will be required as it will be less than six months to the general election?