Nigel Farage with Ukip candidate Diane James
Nigel Farage with Ukip candidate Diane James

Defeated Tory candidate Maria Hutchings was left literally speechless by the Eastleigh result and her mute shock spoke for the whole party.

Failing to unseat the Liberal Democrats in the Hampshire constituency was bad enough for David Cameron's 2015 election strategy. But finishing below Ukip rode a coach and horses through plans to secure a majority at the next election.

Hutchings wore a fixed rictus grin amid a huddle of journalists as she tried to flee the scene of her defeat. But there will be no escaping the consequences of this result in Downing Street.

Last night in Eastleigh was precisely what Cameron hoped to avoid by offering voters an in/out referendum on membership of the European Union. Placing the poll on the other side of the next election was intended to entice voters to the Tories and away from Ukip. Instead of that, Ukip split the vote yet again and then rubbed the Conservatives noses by finishing a close second.

So the Eastleigh result illustrates that the ploy by Tory strategists has not worked. Instead, there is now a crisis do deal with. Fourteen of the party's target seats for the 2015 election are currently held by Lib Dems, so failing to secure this one does not bode well. David Cameron and his chancellor George Osborne woke up this morning with yet more questions hanging over their leadership.

Ukip continued a strong run at by-elections by finishing a close second to the Liberal Democrats. But does this result transform Nigel Farage's collection of Europhobes into more than a party of protest? It is possible to argue against this, since the Liberal Democrat victory is one of only a handful of times that a sitting party of government has won a by-election since World War II. It is possible to count on the fingers of one hand how often this has happened.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg hailed a "stunning win," but Eastleigh could have been stunning defeat. Candidate Mike Thornton won on a reduced majority of less than 2,000 on a 19.4 percent swing to UKIP's Diane James.

Senior Lib Dem Tim Farron called Euro MP Farage "a less successful version of George Galloway." The comparison was pertinent and nearly a painful one for the Liberal Democrats.

Eastleigh, outside Southampton, was the ideal location for the Liberal Democrats, where support for the party is well insulated from wider trends. The party won in the midst of two, yes two, unfolding scandals - including a sex scandal. This speaks volumes for Eastleigh's friendliness toward Lib Dems, but also of how untypical it is. Earlier this week, national opinion polls revealed the party is at its lowest ever ebb.. So announcing a recovery looks premature.

For the coalition it is likely that Liberal Democrats will be emboldened. Nick Clegg can claim his party is far from being a spent force electorally. In contrast Prime Minister David Cameron looks set to feel the heat from his backbench MPs who look ahead to 2015 and see only Nigel Farage's grinning chops portending doom.