David Cameron's Awful 'Independence' Day

The British prime minister was delivered a crushing blow after his Conservative Party was rousted in a by-election.

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British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during a business seminar in Mumbai, India, Monday, Feb. 18, 2013. Cameron is on a two-day official visit to India.

To say that David Cameron had a bad weekend would not give justice to just how truly bad it was. The British prime minister was delivered a crushing blow after his Conservative Party was rousted in a by-election Friday to replace a scandalized parliamentarian-cum-Cabinet minister Chris Huhne.

"This is a by-election," Cameron said, trying to make the best of it. "It's midterm. It's a protest. That's what happens in by-elections." Of course British by-elections are quirky affairs, and Eastleigh, just outside of Southampton on Britain's southern coast, isn't exactly a Tory stronghold.

But the danger is that Cameron believes too much in his public comments. What he calls a "protest" others might call a "referendum." Dismissing the results as a fluke would ignore the growing discontent among many in his own party over his government's seemingly agnostic—and at times heretical—economic and social policies.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the European debt crisis.]

And it was that discontent which boiled over Friday, when the UK Independence Party, Britain's upstart Tea Party-style movement, took 28 percent of the vote to the Tories' 25 percent. (The leftist Liberal Democrats, for whom Eastleigh is a bastion, took the prize with 32 percent.) It is the strongest showing yet by the Independence Party, or UKIP as it is known for short, and adds to the big gains the little party has been racking up in opinion polls lately—from meat-and-potatoes Labor voters and some disaffected independents who voted Lib Dem last time around, but mostly from disaffected Tories.

UKIP's surge has led politicians and analysts across the spectrum to reassess the landscape. The laggards among them prefer to marginalize the party as an outlier. (For example the New York Times—always among the last to acknowledge conservative trends—characterized UKIP as "right-wing" but the Lib Dems as "left of center" ... which is only true if your fulcrum skews sharply left.) But the party has struck a nerve with voters on three points: its two main issues regarding immigration and a rejection of Britain's membership in the European Union, and third, it's leader Nigel Farage, a former commodities broker whose everyman appeal lies in his hoist-a-pint-and-tell-it-as-it-is approachability.

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

The trick for the UKIP will be to expand beyond these specific issues and to enunciate a free market agenda that comprehensively deals with Britons' fears: the country's laggard economy and disappearing jobs.

And if it can sustain the enthusiasm through an expanded agenda, UKIP's best route to governance is by borrowing a card from the Lib Dems and striking a deal with Conservatives as a coalition partner in the 2015 general election. Certainly it's in the Tories' interest to do so; as the New York Times observes, Cameron's efforts to win the general election "could founder if the Independence Party's surge continues and the turns the election into a four-cornered battle."

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Who Is Handling Its Debt Crisis Better: United States or Europe?]

Cameron hasn't done himself any favors, however. He has dismissed UKIP as a party of "racists," a comment as unfair as it is belittling, and which led Farage to all but declare that the UKIP would never join with the prime minister.

Conservatives must decide. Should Cameron stay or if a new leader is selected, smoothing those ruffled feathers may be the only way. But if either party hopes to govern in 2015, they likely will do so together, not separate.

For Cameron, at least, that thought hasn't settled in yet. Despite the pummeling in Eastleigh, he vowed his government "will remain true to our principles, true to our course." Oh dear.

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