How big a warning shot was Barnsley?
One of the most striking aspects of the Barnsley Central result was the second place for UKIP. This was probably their best ever by-election result: itâ€™s the first time theyâ€™ve finished as high as second and was their best-ever share of the poll, though their candidate in Norwich North in 2009 won over a thousand more votes on a higher turnout. In both by-elections this parliament, theyâ€™ve held their deposit.
It would be too simplistic to equate the 7.5% increase in the UKIP share with the 9% fall in the Toriesâ€™ but itâ€™s likely that it forms quite a large part of the story. The Barnsley result also forms part of a wider picture: the two most recent YouGov polls both have UKIP on 5%, with a swing of about 2% from the Tories since the general election.
The formation of the coalition created a government whose components drew support in 2010 from a much larger part of the political spectrum than is usually the case. Unsurprisingly, thatâ€™s put tension on the edges of that range and UKIP is clearly benefiting from that, possibly from both sides as there appears to be some Lib Dem – UKIP leakage too.
The recent court decisions from both the EU and the Council of Europe have played to UKIPâ€™s hand, with votes for prisoners never being a popular policy and the likely changes to insurance policies producing many losers. The former in particular is likely to bring about strains within and between the government parties leaving Cameron with little room for manoeuvre. The tabloids will be watching like hawks for how that policy develops and will be more than happy to give voice to populist arguments from, amongst others, UKIP.
At one time, the Tories would have filled that populist gap. Sticking two fingers up to the ECHR on prisonersâ€™ votes would go down extremely well with the sort of Sun and Mail readers (for want of a better demographic description) who voted Tory throughout the 1979-92 period. But a gap there is and politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum.
Perhaps therein lies the biggest danger for the Tories – that UKIP could spring the gap from a single-issue party to a permanent presence on many more policy debates. Of course, that would also be a danger for UKIP too: they would have to be up to playing the game under a much more searching spotlight. They have not always looked the most professional of outfits and lack strength in depth. That said, their by-election performances suggest they are getting their act together.
The numbers involved are small but significant. A 2% loss from blues to purples would make it much harder for Dave to win a second term. Unless the electionâ€™s held under AV.