Eastleigh by-election as-it-happened

Ian Dunt By

22:00 - Evening everyone. Polls have closed. I'll be with you for at least the next four hours, until we finally get the result at about 2am. Abandon hope and all that.

22:04 - I find the best way to do these things is to drink your way through it. My drink of choice for the Eastleigh by-election is white wine, from a box. I am turning into my father. It's one of nature's sickest jokes. We're low on staff at politics.co.uk, because of people insisting on having their own children, so we don't have anyone at the count, I'm afraid. It's just me in London, with a telephone, a television and the best analysis social media can provide. If I had been forced to do this blog from Eastleigh my drink of choice would have been cheap vodka with a lighter fluid chaser, so all's for the best. The usual caveats apply: Apologies in advance for the typos. They'll be cleared up tomorrow morning. Apologies also in advance for anyone who takes offence. If you want to contact me I'm on Twitter on @iandunt. If you want to join in the conversation use the hashtag #LivePolitics.

22:11 - Rather worryingly, @charlielindlar on Twitter suggests this as the soundtrack to our evening. Make of it what you will.

22:13 - The first non-postal ballots have arrived at the count. Counting will start in 15 minutes or so. In the mean time I'll round up some recommended reading from this afternoon. The hours before a by-election result are a good time to observe the full idiocy of the political commentator. It is an ideal environment in which to notice how poor their predictions are. Speaking of which, here is my offering from midday today, in which I toy with the idea of the Tories coming third.

22:22 - Our second recommended music accompaniment to the evening, from colleague @Alex__Stevenson, is rather strange. I would urge anyone with a better idea than this to offer it, because neither of these options will do, frankly.

22:31 - First up is Dan Hodges for the Telegraph, who is laying into Labour's election campaign. The official opposition is not going to have a good night tonight. It is getting a kicking out there and when I met John O'Farrell, their candidate, he seemed like someone had sucked the living soul out of him. I feel rather warm towards Hodges because the last time I saw him he was in Eastleigh with a big microphone shouting "say something controversial" at Lib Dem candidate Mike Thorton. However, he's overegging the pudding here a bit. The scrabble for fourth place in a seat Labour was never likely to win is not a disaster, it's a disappointment. Its difficulty probably shows the continued prevalence of tactical voting than the failure of Miliband's 'one nation' agenda.

22:38 - Speaking of O'Farrell, he rather charmingly tweeted this this morning: "30 years of knocking on doors for Labour and I still felt a shiver of nerves as I rang that first bell this morning."

22:44 - Mixed reports from Ukip, by the way. Some of their spokespeople are playing down expectations but others are suggesting the Tories have come third. They can suggest what they like of course, without superhuman abilities they are merely commenting on personal anecdote. Lib Dems are insisting they have held the seat and that the Tories are in third, with considerable confidence. Question Time on the BBC is in Eastleigh this week by the way, but I wouldn't switch on if I were you, they have Neil 'never been proven' Hamilton on. He works for Ukip now. If they want to be anything more than a fringe party they should drop him sharpish.

22:50 - Channel 4's Michael Crick makes an important point on Twitter. "Only 3 times since the war has a governing party actually GAINED a seat in a by-election. The last was Mitcham + Morden," he says.

22:54 - Before we get going properly, people always seem reassured if I specify where I'm coming from when I cover these things. Personally, I don't like any of them and don't support any of them. I will be rooting for a Ukip victory. I find their politics appalling, but I really enjoy watching the Tory party have a total nervous breakdown. No-one does that better than the Tories. Alternately, I'd take a Lib Dem hold with Ukip in second. These are the situations which would make the next few months in politics more interesting.

23:00 - That's hour one over with ladies and gentlemen. I am almost entirely sober. There's more on Labour's various difficulties here, although I would add the health warning I mentioned earlier (which is that it's nonsense).

23:03 - I'm reliably informed Betfair now have 12/1 odds on a Lib Dem victory. This is communicated to me with the rather hopeful: "Just pop that up and go to bed @IanDunt, it'll probably be fine." They won't stop me that easily.

23:05 - If you want a quick look at my day in Eastleigh, which involved being told by Ukip that our readers are not "A1s" (something to do with money), you can check it out here. Don't read it if you're from Eastleigh. It's a dreadful town and I wasn't flattering to it.

23:09 - This from James Chapman, political editor of the Daily Mail: "One Tory source insists first indications from count are "it is very much a three-horse race."

23:10 - The odds in Eastleigh are in fact 1/12, not 12/1. Apologies. Keep that money in your pocket.

23:11 - All the ballot boxes are now at the count. Ukip are getting more confident by the minute. Nigel Farage, Ukip leader, is heading to the leisure centre where the count is being held as we speak and is due to be there at 01:30. He says he'll be "very disappointed" if Ukip comes third.

23:23 - As a sample of the quality of debate on Question Time, Neil Hamilton just said: "I think I'm the only person on the panel who's been arrested on suspicion of rape." And then he laughed. Great sense of comic timing, that guy.

23:26 - We're being told that 2am is the earliest we get a result. If Ukip come third they're reportedly going to push for a recount. That would push us to about 4am.

23:30 - Some more reading material for you. Steve Richard in the Independent suggests a Lib Dem victory is actually the best result for everyone. He's no fun - but he is unusually sensible for a columnist.

23:40 - There's an excellent Spectator post by Isabel Hardman on what to make of the various possible outcomes in Eastleigh. Like the rest of us, the space she dedicates to a Ukip victory shows how fascinating the prospect is for politics geeks.

23:43 - Political Betting is asking if we're now in the twilight of Cameron's leadership.

23:44 - The Liberal Democrats are briefing that it's going to be a close race but they are feeling "cautiously optimistic". The party is asking the following rather pertinent question: "If the Conservatives can't beat us in the 11th top target seat under these circumstances, when can they beat us?"

23:48 - Have some Lib Dem stats: Over the course of the campaign Liberal Democrats: averaged 250 volunteers a day with more than 700 people campaigning on the last weekend, made more than 135,000 phone calls, that's more than 3,000 hours of calling, knocked on more than 70,000 doors, received more than 2,000 individual donations, delivered hundreds of thousands of leaflets and received more than 100kg of cake from volunteers at the campaign HQ.

23:50 - Those stats reveal the secret behind Lib Dems' local strengths. The party cannot rely on traditional loyalties. Plenty of people vote Tory or Labour because that is what their families have always done. Without that, the Lib Dems have had to work diligently in their communities. When you go canvassing with Lib Dems you notice how organised they are, sandals or not. They know who is in each house, how they voted last time and whether they have ever considered voting Lib Dem. They ignore houses which they know are a non-starter. It's proper trench warfare with them. The party should not get too optimistic on the basis of a victory tonight though. It's easier to run a local campaign during a by-election, when voters are picking an MP, not a government. During a general election it's another matter.

23:56 - An early indication of the Tory mood from ConHome editor Tim Montgomerie, who tweets: "I am off to bed. Lib Dems holding seat is one thing. If UKIP matches Tory vote that's more worrying. Until the morning..."

23:58 - Ukip are growing in confidence by the minute. They are toying with the hope of coming first and say it will be a tight race for second, if that's where they come. Even coming third would be a hard knock for the party now. There's a lot of chatter about Nigel Farage regretting the fact he didn't run. To my mind that's understating the qualities of James, their candidate, who is commendably difficult to fluster. As I was writing that the Lib Dem rhetoric got noticeably more confident too - they're now pretty much saying they've won.

00:02 - That's the two hour mark. I'm now actually a little drunk. Might have a coffee or this entire blog might go badly wrong. The boxed wine is starting to taste quite convincing - a bad sign. This from centre-right blogger Iain Dale: "If the Tories come third in #Eastleigh I am not sure I would want to be in @GrantShapps's shoes tomorrow. Meeting w/out coffee." It's a good point. This has been the first test of Shapps, the new party chairman. I find him ludicrous and persistently out of his depth, even when standing in puddles. He also has a nice sideline in business success self-help books under false names. Anyway, if Tories come third here, he'll have some pretty major questions to answer. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

00:10 - Almost every source from every party is now predicting a Lib Dem victory, with Ukip in second and the Conservatives third. Some are saying it's a tough race for second. No-one is really questioning a Lib Dem victory.

00:14 - Betfair is now offering 409/1 on a Tory victory.

00:20 - Off topic slightly, but former deputy prime minister John Prescott was commendably honest about the Iraq war on the BBC just now. "I cannot disown my own part played in it and I struggle with it - Iraq cannot be justified as an intervention."

00:22 - The final Tory leaflet in Eastleigh, by the way, had the usual jabber about immigration and Europe but was designed entirely in purple colours to mimic Ukip. I love that their strategy became so desperate the best option was to steal a colour. This is not the behaviour of a confident campaign.

00:28 - Turnout just in. It's 52.8%. Not bad at all for a by-election.

00:30 - Shapps is playing down expectations on the BBC, highlighting how rarely governing parties win by-elections. He's joined by Labour's Chuka 'eligible' Umunna and Simon 'bad eye contact' Hughes. Umunna is playing down expectations as well, rather sensibly. That turnout compares to 69% in the seat during the general election by the way and adds up to 46,650 votes cast.

00:36 - Here is my favourite Simon Hughes moment. It is probably the best single example of what made Betty Boothroyd such a credit to British democracy. "There's no point waiting for silence" should be hung on the entry to the House of Commons.

00:46 - The best thing about boxed wine is you have no idea how much you've drunk. It's very liberating.

00:48 - Shapps is being confronted with his mock Ukip leaflet. "I don't think any one party can claim a colour," he answers, disingenuously.

00:54 - Conservative candidate Maria Hutchings is generally not allowed outside the house without adult supervision and it appears that rule stays in place for tonight. The Ukip, Lib Dem and Labour candidates are expected in the counting hall shortly, but no news on Maria.

00:56 - John Denham is in the hall for Labour and Tim Farron for the Lib Dems. Farron comes across strangely on television, with a big head and an abnormally small body, as if his face was close to you but his waist was very far away. He clearly believes he's won and is not doing a very good job of hiding it. Denham is in danger of being made the fall guy for Labour's performance (he was in charge of the campaign as a neighbouring MP). That's quite unfair. The Labour problem is much more significant than the man in charge.

01:08 - Hour three. Now drinking wine like water. Shapps is having a dreadful time on the Beeb. Umunna is pointing out that Eastleigh is 16 on his target list. Another guest suggests it's further up. Shapps claims not to know. That's unwise. If he doesn't know he's a disastrous party chairman. If he does, he's lying. The latest is that the difference between Ukip and the Tories is just one per cent. The closer it is, the more likely we get a recount, although sources at the count are playing down that possibility.

01:14 - The Guardian is reporting the Lib Dem majority will be between 2,500 and 3,000. That would be impressive, suggesting they've barely lost a thousand votes since 2010 - at worst.

01:17 - Thornton, the Lib Dem candidate, has arrived at the counting hall and is surrounded by admirers. I think - not sure - that Farage is there too. Thornton basically stayed well away from national issues, focused on local matters and general came across as a meat-and-potatoes effective politician: nothing impressive, but not defective.

01:22 - If Thornton smiles any more strenuously he'll split his face open.

01:24 - James is in. Big cheer from Ukip supporters.

01:27 - Farage is really pushing a positive message, saying Ukip will come "Minimum second". He adds: "It's nip and tuck, we may even come first."

01:29 - This from Ukip candidate James: "I'm still hoping for first, but as Nigel says, it's going to be very very close."

01:35 - O'Farrell is now in the counting centre. He is smiling, but he is reduced. Election campaigns are hard on interesting, witty men. They have to buckle down and make themselves boring. Boris Johnson, for instance, is much more boring than most politicians on the campaign trail. The difference is O'Farrell had a barrel-load of losing on top of that. He'll be glad it's over.

01:47 - James tells the BBC: "It looks very, very good news about guaranteed second. It's going to be incredibly close. Fantastic result, however it pans out. It's not just the protest vote. Every single time we were out there, we weren't needing to raise issues, people were already raising issues and they'd already made the link with the EU."

02:01 - Hour four. Not sure if it's drunkenness or exhaustion anymore, but I certainly want it to be over. This is a thankless, odious task. But on the plus side: We're on track for that mass Tory mental breakdown I was hoping for. Hilariously, Hutchings is still being kept away from the cameras by her handlers. This is from LabourList editor Mark Ferguson at the count: "Not much of a cheers for Maria Hutchings when she came is was there? I just spotted a Tory press officer having to stop her from giving a TV interview. Both she and the Tory campaign staff look exhausted…"

02:05 - Looks like we might get a result in the next ten minutes. If you haven't gone to bed yet, don't go now.

02:10 - Farage says Ukip are first on votes today - but not on postal votes. "I'm very sure we've come second. I think the Lib Dems are about a thousand votes ahead of us. If the Conservatives hadn't split our vote we'd have won, wouldn't we?"

02:17 - Lib Dems are saying their majority is 1,711. That's very precise. It's probably true.

02:20 - OK here we go.

02:21 - Conservatives: 10,559. Ukip: 11,571.

02:22 - Labour: 4,088. Lib Dems: 13,342.

02:24 - Thornton is giving his victory speech. He pays tribute to his three main opponents. "To Nick Clegg, whose support and advice have been a tremendous boost." This is the dullest victory speech I've ever seen. There is literally nothing to quote. Ah! "This is my home. This is where I brought up my family. There is no greater honour than to gain your support." That was the best bit. "Today you've given me a mandate. Tonight is a great night for the Lib Dems nationally - a strong symbol of support for Nick Clegg, an affirmation of our role and a huge boost to our party's mission in government. I hope this result goes to show that those who have written us off as a party - that the Liberal Democrats can do it, we have done it and we will do it again."

02:29 - James: "I may have come second but you, the people of Eastleigh, have delivered an almighty political shock."

02:30 - Hutchings: "This was a very clean campaign. I'd like to thank my mother, my husband, my children and to say that what I wish is the very best for the people of Eastleigh." She seemed very close to tears then. She won't be giving any post-result interviews.

02:32 - The Lib Dem victory is not as impressive as we might expect. This was a very poor victory, and the roughly 2,000 votes they lost since 2010 is roughly in line with their decline in the national opinion polls. The big story is the shredding of the Tory vote, which allowed them to keep the seat.

02:34 - OK, that's it from me, but if you like blood sports stick around for the news story and analysis I'll be putting up shortly using my weakened, alcohol frazzled brain.  Thanks for sticking around; we'll be covering the fallout from a hugely important evening throughout tomorrow. See you then.

Get involved Get Involved