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U.K. party fortunes ride on bruising by-election Add to ...

One candidate has been criticized for keeping her Christmas tree up too long, another questioned about not having children and a third has been labelled a “moral reprobate” for musing about Margaret Thatcher being blown up.

It’s all part of one the most hotly contested and important by-elections in Britain in years. And there is much at stake. When the voters of Eastleigh, south of London, go to the polls on Thursday they will not only elect a new member of Parliament. They will also shape the fortunes of Prime Minister David Cameron, his Conservative colleagues and his partner in the coalition government, the Liberal Democrats.

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The by-election “is of vital relevance for the future of all of the political parties,” said Gerry Stoker, a professor of governance at the University of Southampton. “It’s by far in a way the most significant by-election that we’ve had for 10 or 15 years.”

The coalition partners have set aside whatever working relationship they have in government to beat up each other up in Eastleigh. Dozens of high-profile politicians from both parties have descended on the riding in recent days and more are expected in the final week of campaigning.

For Mr. Cameron, a loss could further erode his standing among many Conservative MPs, who are already angry about several government policies, including a recent vote to approve gay marriage. The outcome will also signal whether the Tories have any chance of forming a majority in the next general election in 2015 since Eastleigh is exactly the kind of middle-class riding the Conservatives must win to form a government.

For Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who leads the Liberal Democrats, a loss would be humiliating since the party has held the seat for years but has seen its standing in national polls plummet. (This week, he finds himself also caught up in a scandal involving allegations of inappropriate behaviour by former party chief executive Chris Rennard stretching back several years. Mr. Clegg has indicated he was aware of some concerns about Lord Rennard’s conduct in 2008 and that the party “screwed up” its handling of the allegations.)

For Labour, which leads most polls nationally but has little chance of winning in Eastleigh, a good showing would demonstrate that it is more than a party based mainly in the north.

There is also the wild-card of the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party, or Ukip, which campaigns on an anti-European Union platform and has been irrelevant for years but has been rising in the polls lately.

The party’s leader, Nigel Farage, declined to run in the race, leaving it to local candidate Diane James. She caused controversy early in the race by saying Romanians should be stopped from coming to Britain and committing crimes. Ms. James was also the candidate who felt compelled to explain why she didn’t have children. She blamed innuendo from the Tory campaign, which has focused on family values. “I couldn’t have children. It’s a big regret of my life, but I can’t do anything about that,” she told a local paper last week.

When Mr. Cameron campaigned in Eastleigh last week, he lashed out at reporters for suggesting the Tory candidate, Maria Hutchings, is being kept under wraps because she was a loose cannon. Ms. Hutchings has gone against Mr. Cameron on gay marriage, which she opposes, and Britain’s membership in the European Union, which she also opposes. And she has made some ill-considered remarks about the quality of state-funded schools, immigration and abortion. She would pretty much eliminate all of them. She has faced some snide criticism from the Liberal Democrats for keeping a fully decorated Christmas tree up well into February, something she said she did for her children.

Ms. Hutchings got a publicity boost Wednesday when London Mayor, and Tory faithful, Boris Johnson arrived to help her campaign. Mr. Johnson promptly went after the Liberal Democrats, calling them “Fib Dems” and suggesting they were “great big wobbling jellies of indecision.”

The Liberal Democrats have their own challenges, not the least of which is the tattered reputation of the outgoing MP, high-profile party member Chris Huhne. He resigned after pleading guilty to perverting the course of justice in a bizarre case involving a speeding ticket. The party’s candidate, local councillor Mike Thornton, has been less than overwhelming during the campaign but benefits from a strong organization.

And the Labour candidate – writer and humorist John O’Farrell – has stirred up controversy over a book he wrote 20 years ago in which he said he wished Margaret Thatcher had died in a bomb blast in Brighton in 1984 . The comment drew a sharp rebuke from Tory peer Norman Tebbit, who was injured in the bombing .

“[Labour Leader] Ed Miliband should repudiate this incontinently voiced moral reprobate,” Lord Tebbit said. .

Mr. O’Farrell has apologized, saying the book reflected angry feelings he felt at the time. “I had a fleeting bad thought. I was an angry young man in the middle of the miners’ strike,” he told a local newspaper. “A terrible thought came into my head and I immediately castigated myself for it.”

Whoever wins the by-election, the future of the coalition looks more shaky than it has been lately.

The Tories and Liberal Democrats “have already begun to become distant friends anyway,” Prof. Stoker said.

But he said both parties won’t likely break off the coalition before scheduled elections in 2015 because they need each other to remain in power, especially while the economy is slow. The outcome of the Eastleigh vote “will make the relationship in the coalition even more testy than it is at the moment.”

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