In recent weeks, the 50,000 voters in Newark have been bombarded by an all-out Conservative campaign: each Tory MP has had to visit three times, and each Cabinet Minister five times. This totals roughly 1,000 visits from Members of Parliament, or one MP visit for every 50 voters in the seat. And that’s before the four hundred prospective Parliamentary Candidates and hundreds of ‘Road Trip 2015’ volunteers began knocking on doors as well.
The most extraordinary fact about this blitz is that the Tories are safeguarding a 16,000 majority, putting the constituency in the top 100 safest seats in the country. However, no-one in Westminster has judged this move to be overkill. Alarm bells have been ringing in CCHQ since the European election and local elections confirmed the scale and scope of the UKIP challenge.
This is the first time that UKIP have directly taken on the Conservatives in any meaningful way on the national stage, and the Conservatives have clearly taken this by-election as an opportunity for a show of strength.
The Conservatives did remarkably well to steady the ship following the European elections; whilst the Liberal Democrats had to act decisively to silence a leadership coup, Lynton Crosby had MPs in marginal seats calling open dissenters to explain how unhelpful they were being. However, whilst UKIP were expected to succeed in Europe, Newark is seen as the Conservative’s front lawn.
Tory strategists realise that Newark – largely because of its thumping majority in the 2010 election – is a key battleground because it will make or break UKIP’s domestic momentum and determine whether Conservative MPs’ nerves are frayed beyond a safe limit, or not – with less than year to go to the next national poll. A UKIP win would galvanise the party and create a parliamentary beach-head for more UKIP MP candidates to build on. Farage’s party has also seen the opportunity and have poured resources into the seat, with eight in ten voters saying that they have heard from UKIP. Despite projecting their usual nonchalance, UKIP are gambling a lot on this seat.
Therefore, the Ashcroft polling published this week, showing that the Conservatives still hold a 15% lead in the constituency will have been a blow to Farage’s party and a huge relief to the Conservatives – coming after another poll days earlier showing only an 8% Conservative lead. They will take heart that they’ve increased their projected vote share by 23% (taking from the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives) but this data is indicative of a bigger problem facing UKIP in 2015.
Whilst the Cicero Elections Real Votes Tracker showed UKIP performing well in marginal seats during the local elections, much of their national support is amongst older voters in Conservative strongholds in the South, and amongst white working class communities in strong Northern Labour seats. It is UKIP’s bad luck that so many of their votes are being chipped from the bedrock of the strongest constituencies of the two main parties, in seats which will be the most difficult to overthrow the incumbent.
Coming off the euro and local election poll, the Conservatives have had no option but to mount the most determined and comprehensive campaign in Newark. It is essential to the party to be able to demonstrate that the UKIP bandwagon can be halted. It has been noted that obviously it won’t be possible to maintain this level of campaigning in 2015. This misses the point of Newark’s significance: this is the first time that UKIP have directly taken on the Conservatives in any meaningful way on the national stage, and the Conservatives have clearly taken this by-election as an opportunity for a show of strength.
A comprehensive Conservative victory will be important for the party. Along with his Newark polling figures, Ashcroft published his latest national polling figures, giving Labour a 9% lead across the country. The Conservatives will need every ounce of momentum to catch up over the next year.