So, the Conservatives won the Newark by-election. The fact that this is surprising at all is a sign of the times. Given that Newark is one of Tories' safest seats, it should not be a surprise that the Tories held on to it.
Nevertheless, some Tories are eager to talk-up their by-election victory as though it was a stunning result in the face of almost insurmountable odds. They are either living in a state of supreme self-delusion, sounding like a group of swivel-eyed loons (ha ha), or they are so supremely stupid they believe wholeheartedly their own propaganda.
The evidence they use to defend their (desperate) glee is that it is the first time that the Conservatives have won a by-election victory since 1989. Following this "logic", because the Conservatives went on to win the following 1992 election, the same could be true of the general election next year.
Another point the Conservatives would highlight is the decline of the Labour vote in the by-election; as the Conservatives would argue, hardly a good indicator for an opposition with less than a year to a national election. Given that Labour won the seat in 1997 (more on that later), the Tories are keen to emphasize how far Labour are now from getting it back.
Thirdly, they might also be encouraged by the organised nature of the Conservative local campaign (more on that later); when the Conservatives are organised, they can win local support on the ground. This would give a psychological boost to the party machine, which has suffered from a series of self-inflicted setbacks in recent years.
Lastly, as the party leadership are keen to say, the Newark by-election may well mark a "high water mark" for the purple tide that Ukip has created in the last eighteen months.
Nothing to see here...
That may well be the angle that Conservative Central Office is spinning. Certainly, Ukip's big names looked quite deflated after the media-driven (and partly Ukip-driven) hype that they might cause a huge upset. Seen from this way, the Newark by-election has knocked the Ukip band-wagon off its run of success; but the effect is more psychological than political in real terms.
To be fair to Ukip and Nigel Farage, they never said they stood a serious chance of winning; apart from the talk of the "people's army", Farage was smart enough to read the political runes, the lay of the political landscape, and knew that this was a battle they could never really hope to win. A smart leader chooses his battles. Farage wisely kept his powder dry, and didn't seriously commit a great amount of resources to the by-election campaign.
Talk of the Conservatives bursting the Ukip balloon is self-delusional nonsense. In many ways, what we can learn from Newark is that in many ways it confirms points that this writer said the other week: that in safe Tory territory, Ukip are likely to become the real opposition, pushing Labour into third; the converse can be said in safe Labour territory, where Ukip would likely push the Tories into third. The Newark result fits into this pattern.
It is in the marginals, and especially in those areas where Ukip already have a large presence locally, that they have a very serious chance of winning seats in Westminster. But Farage already knows this, as do the other major parties.
How to read between the lines
What the "real" things that can be gleaned from the Newark by-election are as follows:
First, the Conservatives won the by-election with their majority more than cut in half, from 16,000 to 7,000. This is a drop of almost nine per cent, which is only slightly less than average of ten-and-half per cent in other by-elections in this parliament. In other words, the by-election result roughly followed the pattern for the Tories throughout this parliament, softened slightly because it was already a very safe Tory seat. In other words, the swing was nothing extra-ordinary for the Tories compared to other results; therefore, to make any further analysis (and optimistic predictions for next year) based on this victory would be seriously misunderstand the result. It hasn't stopped many from trying, though.
Second, the Conservatives won the by-election in a very safe seat after using unprecedented numbers of Conservative activists and MPs. Even the Prime Minister came twice. Although we can't know for sure how much effect this had on getting out the vote, this tells us more about the level of paranoia and panic in the Conservative Party there is about Ukip than it does about how well-organised they can be. This brings comparisons with how the Russian Tsar used millions of men as "cannon-fodder" to overwhelm the Germans by sheer force of numbers in the trenches of World War One: it isn't a sign a organisation, it's a sign of desperation.
The Conservatives will not be able to repeat the same tactic across every constituency in the country come next year. The depletion of the party numbers and activists on the ground will start to show glaringly come April next year.
Third, the relative decline of the Labour vote doesn't mean that the Conservatives are a better bet for staying on in Downing Street beyond May 2015. Conservatives have pointed out that Labour's share of the vote is nowhere near what it needed to be in order to win the seat, as they did in 1997. As political historians will recall, that was the year Labour won with a majority of 179 seats. In other words, if the Conservatives are saying that in order for Labour to show they are on course to win the general election next year they have to win Newark, they are showing how little they understand about the mathematical reality of Westminster politics. If Labour had won in Newark yesterday (or come close), it would have meant that the Conservatives would be facing a meltdown next year. No sane person is predicting that. All the polls are currently predicting either a small Labour majority, or Labour as the largest party in a hung parliament. However, those poll "predictions" are based on methods that are undone by the unprecedented effect of Ukip.
As we are now effectively in a "four-party" electoral system, the current polling methodology is not a very accurate way of predicting the result of the next election. The only that we can say is that due to the way the current electoral boundaries are drawn, and the diversionary effect of Ukip on the Conservative vote, the Conservatives have their work cut out to win outright in 2015.
Fourth, Ukip were the victim of a new electoral phenomenon, the "anti-Ukip tactical vote", which seems to have benefitted the Tories. The question is whether this is a one-off phenomenon i.e. that some people in Newark didn't want to have the "honour" of electing Ukip's first Westminster MP. Come the general election, any "anti-Ukip tactical vote" may have some effect in some areas; then again, it may not be a serious factor at all. No-one knows for sure.
Finally, it would be crazy to write-off Ukip's fortunes simply because they failed to win a very safe Conservative seat in a by-election. The Newark by-election itself was a one-off; the first time in twenty-five years that the Conservatives had had a by-election in a very safe Conservative seat.
Putting the figures in perspective, in Newark, Ukip received ten thousand votes, and almost 26 per cent of the vote; this is only a bit less than what they received in the Eastleigh by-election early last year (eleven thousand votes and almost 28 per cent of the vote). These two percentages fall between what Ukip received in the European elections just last month (winning 27.5 per cent of the vote, and being the leading party).
The trend is clear; Ukip have a solid base of support across large parts of England, and in some areas it will likely be large enough to win a seat outright (depending on the extent of any theoretical "anti-Ukip" tactical vote - though my guess is that this will be highly dependent on how much voters in particular constituencies are willing to vote "anti-Ukip" in a general election, which is a form of anti-democratic "rigging" anyway).
So what's the big deal? Ukip have very clear plan, and no-one can seriously doubt their chances of gaining their first set of MPs next year in Westminster. There may be only a handful of them in Westminster next year, but the momentum is on Ukip's side. Too many people have already seen what Ukip are about and like it. The rest of Westminster have yet to adapt to that.
But that is the problem that Ukip have brought to the political game: in England now, no-one really knows anything anymore. We are in politically-uncharted territory.