As the allegations of sexual harassment are inevitably christened Rennardgate, the Lib Dems have been looking anxiously at the polls, and especially for any indication that the news may have affected their chances of retaining the seat of Eastleigh next Thursday. The Tories have been looking too, to see if the barrage of vitriol from the part of the press that favours them has done the trick.
Well, yes it has, but then again, no it hasn’t: the Independent has a national poll that makes grim reading for Corporal Clegg and his motley platoon, with the party scoring a paltry 8%, which puts it in fourth place behind UKIP (who themselves have dropped out of double figures to rest on 9%). However, and there is inevitably a however, that is not where this week’s contest is happening.
To get some idea of what is happening in Eastleigh, we have to turn to another of the Ashcroft opinion surveys, and this gives a very different picture. While this latest Populus poll has the Lib Dems on just 33%, this is 5% ahead of the Tories. UKIP are still third with 21%, but there does not appear to be any further momentum in their campaign. Labour are fourth with just 12%.
And, while the betting has the percentage chance of a Lib Dem victory slipping back to less than 70%, the Tory figure is no better than 22%, with UKIP at just 9%. So expectations are that Mike Thornton, the straightforward and ordinary candidate whose daughter went to a local state school and is now studying medicine at Imperial College in London, will win.
But, the press will ask, when was the all-important fieldwork done for this poll? Sadly for the attack dogs who have been writing wall to wall knocking copy since the weekend, that work was done after the Rennard allegations were first aired (on Friday, Saturday and Sunday last). The clear inference is that voters have, in the main, made their minds up.
Of course, all may be different come Thursday: the UKIP vote could fracture, with sufficient going to the Tories to propel Maria Hutchings over the win line. But that assumes the Lib Dems will not benefit too. On top of that, some Labour voters may see Mike Thornton as the lesser of two evils, especially after some of Ms Hutchings’ recent utterances.
And if the Lib Dems do retain Eastleigh, there will be much ranting and swearing somewhere in Kensington, and a newspaper management thinking more and more that this is the year when the Robert Mugabe of Fleet Street is finally ushered through the exit door.
Yes, some real good could come out of this contest. Stay tuned.