To the relief of Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems took the seat with a reduced majority of 1,771, while the Tory candidate Maria Hutchings won just a quarter of the votes cast.

Senior Tories insisted there would be no change of policy or direction as a result of their third place in a seat they had initially hoped to capture from their Coalition partners.

The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, said he was “gutted” by the result, which he described as a protest vote partly driven by a “distaste for elites”.

Dismissing any suggestion that the Tories needed to move to the Right to counter the Ukip challenge, he added that Eastleigh’s electors “wanted to send a message to the Government that these are tough economic times and they are hurting”.

The result was a huge relief to Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, as it was fought against the backdrop of accusations the party covered up accusations of sexual harassment against Lord Rennard, which the peer strongly denies.

Mr Thornton described his victory as a “strong of support for Nick Clegg, an affirmation of our role in acting in the national interest in the Coalition”.

However, the real success story was Ukip which had its best ever Westminster election result. Its candidate Diane James increased her party’s share of the vote from 3.6 per cent in 2010 to 27.8 per cent.

Labour came a disappointing fourth – undermining Ed Miliband’s claim that his party can improve its results in the south of England and represent ‘one nation’.

The result is particularly disastrous for Mr Cameron as Eastleigh is a seat the party must win in 2015 if the Conservatives are to have any chance of winning an outright majority at the next election.

It will also put him under tremendous pressure from his own restive backbenchers to move further to the right to counter the Ukip threat.

It is all the more galling because when the by-election was called party strategists expressed confidence that they could win the seat following Chris Huhne’s humiliating resignation and anticipated jail sentence for perverting the course of justice.

The party poured resources into the campaign with the Prime Minister visiting the constituency on two occasions and hundreds of Conservative MPs travelling to the Eastleigh to canvass support.

But they failed to prevent their vote being haemorrhaged by Ukip that ran a strong ‘anti-politics’ campaign that moved the party beyond its traditional Euro-sceptic message.

In the end the Conservative share of the vote fell by nearly 14 per cent undermining reassurances given to backbenchers by the Party leadership that they can win seats from the Lib Dems in 2015. Tellingly there were no high profile Tories at the count to support their losing candidate.

By contrast Nick Clegg, who is due to visit the constituency this morning, will be hugely relieved that the Liberal Democrat campaign was not derailed by the lurid allegations against his party’s former chief executive Lord Rennard that have dominated the political agenda this week.

Although, the Lib Dem candidate Mike Thornton saw his share of the vote drop by 14 per cent – it was only slightly less than the fall for the Tories and not enough to deprive him of victory.

Afterward the party’s President Tim Farron said the result would change the narrative in Westminster.

“Defeat for us would have been a disaster,” he said. “But winning shows that the idea that the Lib Dems are down the plughole is ludicrous. It was an outstanding win in very difficult circumstances and shows we can hold on to seats which Tories claimed they had in the bag.”

Ironically it was the intensely local nature of the Lib Dem campaign – that was pioneered by Lord Rennard – which was primarily responsible for the party’s victory.

Many voters in Eastleigh said they voted Lib Dem not because of the party’s national policies but because the council was well run and its candidate was respected.

The result gives hope to Mr Clegg that despite the Liberal Democrats dire national poll standing it will be able to hold on to many of the seats it currently controls in 2015 because of its superior local organisation.

“Given the background of Chris Huhne and the allegations against Lord Rennard winning this seat was always going to be tough,” said one strategist.

“The fact that we managed to hold on is a big boost and shows the party cannot be written off.” 

Ukip’s leader Nigel Farage said he believed his party had “won it on the day” but could not catch up with the deficit in postal votes. He also denied the Ukip surge was a protest vote.

“The issues we have surged on in Eastleigh are not going away – they are going to get bigger and bigger,” he said. “People will say it was a protest vote but who we attracted here were non-voters who had not voted for 20 years – they are not protest votes.”

Ms Hutchings left the count without commenting but neighbouring George Hollingbery blamed the result of difficulties of the economy.

“People are really feeling the pinch. They think we’re doing the right thing on cutting the deficit but they don’t like it very much.

“Of course we would like to have done better tonight – no question about that. But this was about a protest vote. It was about people saying quite clearly we are pretty uncomfortable. You people up here need to know about this. We are going to vote for a party where we know are votes are going to have no national consequences.”

Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps also tried to play down the significance of the result.

“All the evidence is that in two and a half years much can change so don’t try and predict very much from a single by-election.

”The reality is that when it comes to actually governing the country, the kind of things that people are concerned about – including some of the things that Ukip voters will have been worried about – David Cameron’s doing that.”

In his victory speech, Mr Thornton said: “I hope this result here in Eastleigh tonight just goes to show to those who have written us off as a party, those who say the Liberal Democrats won’t win again, those who are so keen to do us down, that the Liberal Democrats can do it, we have done it and we will do it again.

He said there ”really is no greater honour than to have gained your support and to be elected as your representative tonight“.

”Today you have given me a mandate to work to defend our countryside, to continue to seek to bring jobs and growth to the area, to fight to continue cutting taxes for ordinary working people, to defend our public services and to ensure a fair deal for our pensioners. And this is what I will do.“

Turn out was around 20 per cent lower than the last general election at 52 per cent – but higher than some recent by-elections.

By-election result

Mike Thornton (LD) 13,342 (32.06%, -14.48%)

Diane James (UKIP) 11,571 (27.80%, +24.20%)

Maria Hutchings (C) 10,559 (25.37%, -13.96%)

John O’Farrell (Lab) 4,088 (9.82%, +0.22%)

Danny Stupple (Ind) 768 (1.85%, +1.56%)

Dr Iain Maclennan (NHA) 392 (0.94%)

Ray Hall (Beer) 235 (0.56%)

Kevin Milburn (Christian) 163 (0.39%)

Howling Laud Hope (Loony) 136 (0.33%)

Jim Duggan (Peace) 128 (0.31%)

David Bishop (Elvis) 72 (0.17%)

Michael Walters (Eng Dem) 70 (0.17%, -0.30%)

Daz Procter (TUSC) 62 (0.15%)

Colin Bex (Wessex Reg) 30 (0.07%)

LD majority 1,771 (4.26%); 19.34% swing LD to UKIP

Electorate 79,004

Turnout 41,616 (52.68%, -16.61%)

Cameron is humiliated at Eastleigh as Lib Dems and Ukip beat Tories into third – The Independent
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