Three losers: A European elections catastrophe for Westminster’s chiefs
The three mainstream parties in Westminster have taken a kicking – but which party leader has come out worst from this year's European elections?
There's no doubt all three of them should be feeling pretty bruised and battered after an astonishing and historic victory for Nigel Farage's Ukip.
After all, this was the first time that neither Labour nor the Conservatives won a nationwide set of elections since 1908.
Of course there are all sorts of reasons for this unusual turn of events. The coalition has a lot to do with it. So does the state of euroscepticism and anti-immigration feeling in British politics.
Nevertheless, everyone from the main three parties in Westminster will now, finally, be taking Ukip seriously as a force to be reckoned with in the 2015 general election.
This is the contest which really matters: the struggle for power which David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have been focused on above all else for the last four years.
How, then, does their hammering at the polls affect the prospects of the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems in the most important election of all?
David Cameron: Bad-tempered and defiant
The numbers don't look good for the prime minister. The Conservatives slipped four per cent from their 2009 peak, losing seven MEPs and being forced into third place. Cameron's attempt to placate eurosceptics with a promise of a 2017 in-out referendum have obviously completely failed.
Across large parts of the country which had previously been firmly blue, purple is now leading the first-past-the-post contests. Cameron will have to spend the next year arguing that the general election is a different sort of competition. He began on the Today programme this morning, dismissing support for Ukip as a protest vote:
"I'm disappointed to lose some very good MEPs, but it is worth noting Ukip themselves said this is a good chance for a 'free hit'. General elections aren't a free hit… people do see it [the European elections] as an opportunity to send a variety of messages to the government."
Is he right? Probably. But there's something disconcerting, and unprecedented, about the scale of the Ukip triumph which makes it very hard indeed to write off Ukip's chances in 2015. Conventional wisdom dictates that European election revolts are indeed nothing more than tantrums from the British electorate. The bad news for Cameron is we can't be completely certain that's the case this time round.
Dave may not be the biggest loser among the three leaders, but he is certainly the sorest. Just look at his appallingly personal lashing-out at Farage towards the end of his interview:
"Listening to him on the radio and television for the last few days, it all seems supremely tactical," he complained.
"It's about trying to grow votes in clusters or something in different parts of the country. I don't really accept this thing. He's a consummate politician, we've seen that with his expenses and his wife on the payroll and everything else. So I don't really accept the 'he's a normal bloke down the pub' thing."
Maybe it was a grudging token of recognition that Nigel Farage is now a figure to be reckoned with. Or perhaps Cameron is just in a filthy mood.
Ed Miliband: On course for failure
This was the first time the main party of opposition failed to win a European elections contest since 1984, when Michael Foot's Labour slipped behind the Conservatives. That just about says it all for Labour in 2014.
Just look back to 2009, when Gordon Brown's performance in the European elections was so bad it triggered a wave of resignations that nearly toppled him. So much time has passed since then, but Labour did not succeed in a double-digit increase in their vote share. They barely even beat the Conservatives, with less than 1.5% between them across the whole country. Compare that to 2009, when Labour in government were eight per cent behind the Tory opposition.
And this is terrible, terrible news for Miliband. Incumbent governing parties always take a kicking in the European elections; as Cameron himself explained, this is what they are for. So Labour's failure to soundly send the Tories packing should leave the opposition in a state of dismal dismay. There are now 20 Labour MEPs and 19 Tory MEPs. Hardly a resounding victory, is it?
Miliband himself seems to be in denial. He says the Ukip victory is down to a "deep discontent about the way this country is run". The implication is that voters are fed up with the parties in power right now – ie, not Labour. But Ukip's brand is all about writing off all three of the Westminster tribes, not just the ones that happen to be in charge at the moment. Miliband has set himself the task of demonstrating that Labour can change all that. The question now is whether voters really believe him.
Nick Clegg: Job on the line
It's bad for Cameron and terrible for Miliband, but these election results were simply catastrophic for Clegg. The deputy prime minister waited until after lunch before finally emerging to make a statement on what was an astonishingly poor night for the Liberal Democrats.
The numbers say it all: their vote share halved to 6.87% and they lost ten of their 11 MEPs. Inevitable speculation about Clegg's future followed. Former, current and wannabe MPs have all demanded a swift resignation. Among them is backbencher John Pugh, who makes this point: "If we carry on as usual we are exactly like the generals in the Somme because these losses are horrendous."
Clegg, unlike the other party leaders, hasn't even tried to pretend this is anything other than disastrous. "It is gutting," he said, blaming the unpopularity of his party on their position in government and their pro-European stance. Well, that's putting it mildly. The defence of his leadership is based on the idea that somehow the job has to be completed. "If I'm honest with you, the easiest thing in politics when the going gets tough is to walk away, to just wash your hands. But I'm not going to do that and my party's going to do that."
While senior party figures rallied around Clegg, the sense is their mercy is only temporary. Clegg, surely, has only won a stay of execution: the time for change will be after the 2015 general election wipeout, not this one.