A senior Tory who spent the last three weeks in Eastleigh told The Independent that Ukip had attracted support from traditional “blue-collar Tories” – and warned that the party urgently needed to revive its appeal to a key group of voters.
In the most fiercely fought contest since the general election, the Liberal Democrats shrugged off the furore over Lord Rennard to hold on to the Hampshire constituency, while Ukip pushed the Tories into third place and Labour limped in fourth.
The Tory defeat raised a new question-mark over its ability to reach out to voters in the marginal seats they need to capture in order to win the next election.
Mr Cameron and senior ministers insisted they had suffered from a mid-term “protest vote” that had boosted Ukip support but would melt away when the country went to the polls in 2015. They firmly dismissed suggestions that the Prime Minister would alter direction.
But Michael Fabricant, the Tory vice-chairman in charge of parliamentary campaigning, said Ukip had evolved and no longer just appealed to people hostile to the European Union.
He said: “It also speaks to voters concerned about issues such as law and order, immigration, benefits and so forth.
“This has traditionally been the Conservative blue collar vote which we are at risk of losing. We need to become better at communicating the work we are doing in so many areas to reflect the heartfelt views of British voters.”
Mr Fabricant, who has previously called for an electoral pact with Ukip and played a leading role in the Eastleigh campaign, added: “The Conservative Party needs to find itself a new voice that speaks with clarity to a sceptical and tired electorate.
“Unless we do that, and if Ukip is able to attract the finance and logistical skills it currently lacks to fight an effective general election campaign, then the dynamic of British politics might be changed for decades to come.”
Right-wingers protested that under Mr Cameron the party had lost its rapport with its natural supporters over such issues as Europe, immigration and gay marriage.
Stewart Jackson, who resigned as a ministerial aide over Europe, said: “He is out of touch with the party. Both gay marriage and EU migration feed into a narrative that too much emphasis is going to the liberal metropolitan elite and not enough to the blue-collar working vote Margaret Thatcher had the support of.”
Douglas Carswell, the MP for Clacton, made a similar point as he tweeted: “How to build an election winning centre right majority? Don’t alienate base in return for pundit applause. Pundits don’t have many votes.”
Eleanor Laing, the MP for Epping Forest, warned backbenchers were “in despair” over the numbers quitting the party and said many Tories felt “hurt and left out” under Mr Cameron’s leadership.
She said: “They’re told they’re old-fashioned and they think they don’t matter.”
The MEP Daniel Hannan said the Tories and Ukip should start “having conversations” and “stop calling each other names”.
The result was a damaging set-back for the Conservative chairman, Grant Shapps, as Eastleigh was among the 40 seats he had targeted for Tory gains at the next election.
Mr Shapps said a poll conducted by Lord Ashcroft, the party’s former deputy chairman, found the Tories won have won in Eastleigh if a general election had been taking place.
The Prime Minister said: “In mid-term by-elections people want to register a protest, but I’m confident we can win those people back by demonstrating that we are delivering for everyone that wants to work hard and wants to get on.”
Sarah Newton, a deputy Tory chairman, caused dismay among colleagues when she tried to put a gloss on the result by describing it as “good for the Coalition that the Coalition has kept a seat”. Senior Tories rapidly dismissed her comments.
David Cameron faces backlash from Conservative right as Ukip attract votes … – The Independent
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