PM vow after second Ukip poll win
David Cameron has vowed to win back Rochester and Strood for the Conservatives after they suffered their second damaging by-election defeat at the hands of Ukip in the space of six weeks.
Amid jubilant scenes, Tory defector Mark Reckless - who stood down in order to trigger the showdown with his former party - regained the Kent seat with a majority of 2,920.
Ukip leader Nigel Farage said he would be "very surprised" if more Tory MPs did not now choose to jump ship and join his party in the run-up to the general election next year.
Among the Conservative high command, there was some relief that the final margin of defeat was narrower than many commentators had been predicting.
In the aftermath of the vote, a number of prominent Tory Eurosceptics - including John Baron, Philip Davies and Stewart Jackson - came out to declare their continuing allegiance to the party.
The result was nevertheless another wounding blow for Mr Cameron, following the victory of Mr Reckless's fellow Conservative defector Douglas Carswell in Clacton, Essex.
The Prime Minister put his authority on the line, visiting the Kent constituency five times during the course of a campaign the Conservatives had originally insisted was "winnable".
But having first vowed to "throw the kitchen sink" at the battle, in recent weeks officials sought to play down expectations as the polls consistently pointed to a Ukip victory.
Mr Cameron said: "I am absolutely determined to win this seat back at the next general election because anything other than a Conservative government will put our recovery at risk and Ed Miliband in Downing Street. I am more determined than ever to deliver security for Britain."
Mr Farage said the result - in Ukip's 271st target seat - showed that his party was now capable of winning anywhere in the country.
"We have beaten the governing party of the day in this sort of life-and-death struggle. It represents a huge, huge victory," he told Sky News.
"I would be very surprised, given where we are, if there weren't more defections between now and the next general election.
"They won't happen today, they won't happen tomorrow, but over the course of the next few weeks people will be thinking and perhaps some of them saying to themselves 'You know what, I have got a better chance of winning on a purple ticket than I have on a blue ticket'."
Before rushing back to Westminster so he could be sworn in as a MP in time to take part in a debate on the future of NHS, Mr Reckless suggested Ukip could end up holding the balance of power after the general election.
"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 told cheering supporters.
Conservative Chief Whip Michael Gove insisted he remained "100% certain" there would be no more defections to Ukip, although Leader of the Commons William Hague sounded less sure, saying: "I don't have a crystal ball about what every MP will do."
Mr Cameron is likely to come under renewed pressure from Tory Eurosceptics to harden his demands to repatriate powers from Brussels in order to curb immigration from the European Union.
Backbencher Andrew Bridgen called on Mr Cameron to counter the appeal of Ukip by promising to put himself at the head of the campaign to leave the EU if he was unable to achieve a satisfactory re-negotiation of the terms of Britain's membership.
"We need the Prime Minister to say that and I think that will take the legs from under Ukip," he said.
While the Tories licked their wounds, it was also another bad night for Labour who were beaten into third place, raising fresh questions over Ed Miliband's prospect of entering Downing Street.
"We know we have got a challenge in relation to Ukip. It's a challenge I'm determined to meet," the Labour leader said.
"I think what it says is that there is deep discontent about the country and there is also a scepticism about whether any mainstream political party can turn it round. Our fight, our job, is to show we can."
The Liberal Democrats continued a humiliating string of by-election performances, finishing fifth behind the Greens with just 349 votes and losing another deposit.
Party president Tim Farron said they had suffered as a result of tactical voting by Lib Dem supporters who wanted to keep out Ukip.
"The Conservatives probably found that they had more people tactically voting for them from Labour and the Lib Dems than people who were actually Conservatives. They were all going Ukip," he said.
A Press Association analysis of the voting figures suggests that there will again be a hung parliament after next May, however well Ukip performs.
All three main parties saw their share of the vote fall compared with the last general election, with the Lib Dems down by 15.39%, the Tories by 14.39% and Labour by 11.7%.
Ukip's first directly-elected MP, Douglas Carswell, predicted the party could win "dozens" more seats and suggested it could replace Labour as the main opposition by offering a modern version of the "free market, economically liberal" administrations of William Gladstone in the 19th century.
Writing on the Daily Telegraph website, Mr Carswell said: " If Ukip can win in Rochester, the 271st most Ukip-friendly seat in the country, Ukip can win in dozens of other seats too."
Ukip's victory in Rochester showed that, by appealing directly to ex-Labour voters, the party has an opportunity to "undo the tragedy of the 1920s", when Labour became the second party of British politics, he said.
" So much of Britain is now run in the interests of various vested interests, there is an extraordinary opportunity for a new, free market, economically liberal party committed to far reaching, radical political reform," said Mr Carswell. "Think of it as Gladstone dotcom."
Mr Miliband said he was "furious" about the controversial tweet sent by Emily Thornberry while out campaigning in the by-election and admitted Labour must "learn the wider lessons" of the poll result.
Writing in the Daily Mirror, he said: "We know we've got a challenge in relation to Ukip and it's a challenge I'm determined to meet.
"But I am not going to let Ukip get away with the claim they will stand up for working people.
"It is time we levelled with people about Ukip.
"They've got away with it for too long. They think working mothers aren't worth as much as men. They think the NHS would be better off privatised. They think workers' should have fewer rights and bankers' should have bigger bonuses.
"Of course, people rightly feel a sense of loss about the past. Jobs that have gone. Communities that have changed. Prospects for your kids that are diminished.
"But the answer is not to return to a more unequal, more unjust past.
"The answer is to go out and fight for what we believe in."