Thatcher Gove
Margaret Thatcher and Michael Gove [Reuters].

Senior Tory Michael Gove insisted lurching to the right would be the wrong response to the Conservatives' Eastleigh humiliation, despite the success of Ukip.

Education secretary Gove said the party must stick to the centre ground and not pander to the right if it wants success at the 2015 general election.

Ukip forced the Conservatives down into third place at the Eastleigh by-election last night. Nigel Farage's europhobe party stunned David Cameron and also achieved a 19.3 percent swing against Lib Dem winner Mike Thornton, who won on a reduced majority of less than 2,000.

But Gove insisted the result signified a wider malaise within mainstream politics and not specific difficulties for the Conservatives.

Admitting to being "gutted" by the result which threatens a crisis in the Tory leadership, Gove said: "There is a greater sense of disengagement from conventional politics now than there has been in my adult lifetime. So the 'none of the above, you're all the same' vote is stronger.

"That is part of a broader distaste for elites. People believe that elites have failed, everything from the expenses scandal, to what has gone wrong in banking to the recent revelations in Mid Staffordshire mean there is a sense that the establishment has let folk down. That is powerful."

Cabinet minister Gove summoned up the spirit of Margaret Thatcher's leadership in pushing through the economic reforms of the 1980s.

He said: "When the Heath government in the 1970s decided to change economic course that was a disaster. There were times when Margaret Thatcher was challenged by by-election results in the 1980s but she stuck to her course."

Changing course in a bid to woo voters from Ukip would work against the government, said the senior Tory. Results show elections in Britain using the first-past-the-post voting system tend to be won on the centre ground.

"Over the next few days you can almost write the script as though it were an episode of EastEnders or Hollyoaks. There will be certain commentators and one or two people on the backbenches who will say the Conservative party needs to move to the 'right'. They are wrong."

"If the public recognise that the government are taking the right decisions for the country then you get rewarded at general election time," he said.

"If people think you are changing policy in order to take account of a by-election, or to play party politics, that is when the problems arise and people think: do you know what we smell? Inauthenticity."

Cameron called last night's result in Eastleigh "disappointing."

Speaking at Downing Street he said: "It is a disappointing result for the Conservative Party, but it is clear that, in mid-term by-elections, people want to register a protest.

"But I am confident that at the general election we can win those people back by demonstrating that we are delivering for everyone who wants to work hard and wants to get on. That is what we will be focused on."

Michael Gove
Michael Gove