Nigel Farage is celebrating seeing a second Ukip MP elected to parliament this morning after Mark Reckless comfortably secured victory in the Rochester and Strood by-election, raising the prospect that more Conservatives may defect.
Reckless, who tried to derail David Cameron's party conference two months ago by dramatically defecting from the Tories, won 16,867 votes, or 42% of the vote - a majority of 2,920.
Ukip's success is a huge embarrassment for the prime minister, who had personally campaigned in the Kent constituency no less than five times and had initially been confident of a Tory victory. Cameron bullishly warned Reckless in October that he was "coming for" him and would "throw everything we can at you". Tory MPs and cabinet ministers were ordered to the seat en masse to halt the march of Farage's "People's Army".
In the end even the "kitchen sink" was not enough to prevent Ukip from winning. Kelly Tolhurst, the Tory candidate, came second with 13,947 votes, or 34.8%.
Arriving at the count in the early hours of Friday morning, Farage mocked Cameron for losing the "David vs Goliath battle" given he had been the "pin up boy" of the campaign. "I would have thought for the prime minister, having put so much into this and having spent so much money, it's pretty bad news," he added.
Clacton, the scene of Douglas Carswell's landslide election as Ukip's first MP in October, was seen as prime Ukip territory. However Rochester and Strood is 271st on the party's target list, making Reckless' election even more damaging for Cameron. In his victory speech Reckless said: "If we win here, we can win across the country."
And he told voters: "You remain my boss, don't let me forget it."
Reckless said his victory had proved that Ukip could win nationwide and urged voters to ensure enough MPs were elected to hold the balance of power after 2015.
"Whichever constituency, whatever your former party allegiance, think of what it would mean to have a bloc of Ukip MPs at Westminster large enough to hold the balance of power," he said.
"If you believe in freedom, if you believe in low taxes, if you believe in clean government, if you believe in localism, if you believe in people power.
"If you believe that the world is bigger than Europe, if you believe in an independent Britain, then come with us and we will give you back your country."
Farage told reporters: "(David Cameron) put his own personal reputation on the line to fight this by-election and lost, so there you go."
Rochester and Strood result in full:
- Mark Reckless (UKIP) 16,867 (42.10%)
- Kelly Tolhurst (C) 13,947 (34.81%, -14.39%)
- Naushabah Khan (Lab) 6,713 (16.76%, -11.70%)
- Clive Gregory (Green) 1,692 (4.22%, +2.69%)
- Geoff Juby (LD) 349 (0.87%, -15.39%)
- Hairy Knorm Davidson (Loony) 151 (0.38%)
- Stephen Goldsbrough (Ind) 69 (0.17%)
- Nick Long (PBP) 69 (0.17%)
- Jayda Fransen (Britain 1st) 56 (0.14%)
- Mike Barker (Ind) 54 (0.13%)
- Charlotte Rose (Ind) 43 (0.11%)
- Dave Osborn (Pat Soc) 33 (0.08%)
- Christopher Challis (Ind) 22 (0.05%)
Reckless now joins Carswell in the Commons. His victory will trigger rumours that more Tory MPs may now decide it is safe for them to defect. Reckless has said he has held talks with two Conservative MPs. Asked earlier this morning if more Tories would jump ship, Farage said: "If other MPs decide the purple ticket is better than the blue one, I would be very pleased to have them."
However Michael Gove, the Tory chief whip, said on Thursday he was "absolutely 100% convinced no one else will defect". And eurosceptic Conservative MP Stewart Jackson said any Tory MP who defects to Ukip on the basis of the result in Rochester and Strood "would frankly be completely insane".
Labour's candidate, Naushabah Khan, came third with 6,713 votes. After a difficult few weeks, Ed Miliband had hoped to stay out of the headlines today and allow Cameron's leadership of his party to take a battering for a change. However as polls closed on Thursday evening, shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry was forced to resign after being accused of snobbery towards Rochester voters. A tweet sent by the Islington MP of a house with England flags was seen by some as sneering at the working class, ruining Labour's attempt to get through the day unnoticed.
The Liberal Democrats, who came third in the seat at the 2010 election with 16% of the vote, continued a humiliating string of by-election performances. Nick Clegg's party lost another deposit and finished fifth with just 349 votes in the worst performance ever by a governing party in British political history.
The Tories will hope the Ukip surge is a mid-term protest vote, rather than an indication of what is to come at the general election in 2015. A significant Ukip vote in May would seriously endanger Cameron's chances of making it back into Downing Street.
Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith told the BBC the by-election gave voters a chance to take a free shot at the Tories. "The big one for us is the general election, that is where governments are chosen," he said. Conservatives are quietly confident of winning Rochester back from Ukip in six months time.
The campaign in Rochester was initially dominated by Ukip's signature issue of immigration. Reckless caused a last minute furore after he appeared to suggest some EU migrants living in the UK legally should be deported. And Tolhurst, whose campaign was carefully managed by Tory campaign headquarters, went out of her way to tell voters that she wanted Cameron to crackdown further on "uncontrolled immigration".
Reckless is set to deliver his first major set piece speech as a Ukip MP in London on Saturday morning.