The Conservatives are “absolutely determined” to win back the Rochester and Strood parliamentary seat at next year’s general election, David Cameron has said after his party claimed that Ukip failed to secure a major breakthrough.
As Tory sources played down the prospect of further defections by Conservative MPs after Mark Reckless won Ukip’s second seat with a majority of 2,920, the prime minister said another victory for Nigel Farage’s party in May would only help the Labour party.
Speaking at Paddington station before catching a train to a conference in Newport, Cameron said: “The result was closer than the pollsters had predicted. I am absolutely determined to win this seat back at the next general election because anything other than a Conservative government will put our recovery at risk and Ed Miliband in Downing Street. I am more determined than ever to deliver security for Britain.”
The prime minister also widened his attack on the Labour leader by saying that a picture of a house decked out in St George’s flags in Rochester and Strood tweeted by Emily Thornberry showed that Labour “sneers” at hard-working people.
“Emily Thornberry is one of Ed Miliband’s closest allies and aides,” he said of the MP for Islington South and Finsbury, who was forced to resign as shadow attorney general over the tweet.
“Effectively what this means is that Ed Miliband’s Labour party sneers at people who work hard, who are patriotic and who love their country, and I think that is absolutely appalling.”
But Miliband, who in effect sacked Thornberry in the course of two telephone calls on Thursday night, distanced himself from the tweet. “That is not my view, that is not Labour’s view, that will never be Labour’s view,” he said.
The prime minister tried to move the focus to Miliband after Reckless, whose defection from the Conservatives triggered the byelection, inflicted a humiliating blow. The prime minister had promised to throw huge resources at winning the seat, visiting Rochester and Strood five times and ordering his MPs to each make at least three trips.
Reckless received 16,867 votes, or 42.1% of the poll. His Conservative opponent, Kelly Tolhurst, took 13,947 votes (34.8%), a fall of 14.4 percentage points.
Labour’s Naushabah Khan came third with 6,713 (16.8%, down 11.7 percentage points) and the Liberal Democrats won just 349 (0.9%, down 15.4 percentage points). The Lib Dems finished behind the Greens, who polled 1,692 (4.2%, up 2.7 percentage points).
Farage said the byelection meant the result of next year’s general election was “unpredictable beyond comprehension”. He told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4: “It means the whole thing is thrown up in the air. Anybody that now tries to attempt to predict what will happen next year frankly is wasting their time. It is now unpredictable beyond comprehension. This was seat number 271 on Ukip’s target list. We’ve shown here that if you vote Ukip, you get Ukip, and I think the consequences are very difficult to predict.”
Tory sources said they were confident of regaining the seat at the general election. Peter Kellner, the president of the market research firm YouGov, said the Tories would win the seat back if they secured a swing of around 4%.
The sources said the Ukip majority, which fell short of 15% in one poll, meant that Tory MPs were likely to think twice about defecting. They said it was right to throw so many resources at the byelection because it helped them rebuild an infrastructure in Rochester and Strood after Reckless’s defection.
Tolhurst will decide in the next week whether to stand in the general election.
The Tories sought to portray the result as a blow to Labour, which held the seat until 2010 on different boundaries. The sources pointed out that no opposition party had moved into government unless it secured a net byelection gain. Labour gained Corby in a byelection in 2012 but this was cancelled out when it lost Bradford West to George Galloway in 2012.
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