Lib Dems battle to persuade voters to turn out in today"s crunch Eastleigh by-election amid fears sex scandal could decide result

Lib Dems battle to persuade voters to turn out in today's crunch Eastleigh by-election amid fears sex scandal could decide result
Polls open in Hampshire town to elect successor to disgraced Cabinet minister Chris HuhneContest billed as three-horse race between Lib Dems, Tories and UKIPLib Dems thought win was 'in the bag' until allegations emerged against ex-chief executive Lord RennardTories fear they could be forced into third place by a surging UKIP

By
Matt Chorley, Mailonline Political Editor

PUBLISHED:

08:54 GMT, 28 February 2013

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UPDATED:

09:45 GMT, 28 February 2013

Panicked Liberal Democrats launched a drive to persuade their supporters to turn out in today's crunch Eastleigh by-election amid fears voters will desert them in protest at the Lord Rennard scandal.

Voters go to the polls in the Hampshire seat today to choose a successor to disgraced Cabinet minister Chris Huhne, who quit after being warned he faces jail for pleading guilty to perverting the course of justice.

The Lib Dems are battling to see off challenges from the Conservatives and the UK Independence Party, who claim they could be on course for a historic first Commons win.

The Lib Dems are defending a 3,684 majority in the Eastleigh seat, with 14 candidates standing in today's by-election

The Lib Dems are defending a 3,684 majority in the Eastleigh seat, with 14 candidates standing in today's by-election

Polling stations opened at 7am and voters can cast their ballot until 10pm. There are 14 candidates standing in the seat, where the Lib Dems are defending a 3,864 majority.

Lib Dem strategists say a week ago they believed victory was ‘in the bag’ but have been thrown off course by claims that the Lib Dem leadership turned a blind eye to allegations of sexual misconduct by former chief executive Lord Rennard.

‘It is having an effect,’ said a senior party source. ‘The big danger is our people just stay at home, and Tory and UKIP voters turn out.’

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg made a brief visit to Eastleigh yesterday, where he boasted that his party's candidate Mike Thornton was ‘on the cusp of a great victory’. He told activists: ‘We can and we will win.’

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg yesterday told activists in Eastleigh that the party was 'on the cusp of a great victory'

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg yesterday told activists in Eastleigh that the party was 'on the cusp of a great victory'

Defeat for Mr Clegg would intensify pressure on his leadership, ahead of the party’s spring conference in Brighton next week where activists are expected to make their voices heard.

But the consequences of a poor result for the Conservatives are also potentially serious for David Cameron.

Former Tory leadership challenger David Davis told BBC TV's Daily Politics: 'I think if we came third it would be a crisis, I think that’s the case, and if it’s a close second with UKIP on our tail it will also be uncomfortable.

'Lets be clear, it's not gonna dislodge David Cameron, he’s going to be there till the next election, but the simple truth is that it will make things more uncomfortable in the House of Commons.'

The by-election has been billed as a must-win for David Cameron, who is in Latvia for the Northern Future Forum meeting of prime ministers from Nordic and Baltic countries and Britain in Riga

The by-election has been billed as a must-win for David Cameron, who is in Latvia for the Northern Future Forum meeting of prime ministers from Nordic and Baltic countries and Britain in Riga

UKIP leader Nigel Farage claimed his party was ‘coming up on the rails’ and could overtake both the Liberal Democrats and the Tories in Eastleigh.

He claimed UKIP supporters would vote for his party's candidate Diane James ‘in blood’ to express their anger at the bigger parties.

Recent polls have put UKIP comfortably in third place, behind the Tories in second and the Lib Dems ahead with a five point lead.

Mr Farage told LBC 97.3: ‘It started off as a two-horse race with the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives ahead.

‘Over the course of the last week we have been coming up on the rails. We have almost drawn level with one full day’s campaign to go.

‘What we have got here is a very exciting three-way marginal. I think this is the toughest by-election to call we have ever seen.

‘Turnout makes a hell of a difference. People who have said they will vote UKIP will go out and vote for UKIP in blood. We could see a UKIP win,’ he added, although he accepted ‘the odds are against’.