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Clegg hails 'stunning victory'
Diane James, the Ukip candidate who finished second behind new Eastleigh MP Mike Thornton, the Lib Dem candidate
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has hailed his party's success in the Eastleigh by-election, telling activists in the Hampshire town: "We held our nerve, we stood our ground... we overcame the odds and we won a stunning victory."
The Lib Dems held off a late surge by the UK Independence Party (Ukip) to win the by-election in the early hours of Friday, but Prime Minister David Cameron was dealt a serious blow as the Conservatives were pushed into third place.
Visiting Eastleigh to congratulate his party's new MP, Mike Thornton, Mr Clegg said the message for Lib Dems from the poll was that "we can be in government and still win".
Jubilant Lib Dem president Tim Farron said the result meant that 20-30 Tory seats were now vulnerable to the party in the 2015 general election.
But Conservative Education Secretary Michael Gove insisted that the party would not be blown off course by its defeat and would resist backbench calls for a shift to the right on issues like immigration and gay marriage.
"What we need to demonstrate is that the course that we have set is producing results," Mr Gove told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. "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 here'."
Prime Minister David Cameron said that the Eastleigh by-election result was "disappointing" but he was "confident" that the Conservatives could win back support at the general election.
Mr Thornton won the by-election - triggered by the resignation of disgraced ex-Cabinet minister Chris Huhne - with 13,342 votes, a majority of 1,771 over Ukip's Diane James, who said beating the Tories was a "humongous" shock which represented a "seismic shift" in UK politics.
Addressing cheering supporters at Hampshire Cricket Club's Ageas Bowl ground in the constituency, Mr Clegg said: "This has been a by-election we've had to fight in exceptionally difficult circumstances. Our opponents have thrown everything at us. We held our nerve, we stood our ground, we worked as a team, we went out and campaigned on every doorstep, we overcame the odds and won a stunning victory.
"In the past, I think people have sometimes made quite exaggerated claims about the political significance about individual by-elections, and of course I'll leave it up to the Labour and Conservative Parties to explain or seek to explain their very poor results last night. But for the Liberal Democrats, my view is the message is very simple: We can be a party of government and still win."