As regular readers of this blog will know, I have spent much of the last few weeks helping to run the Conservative campaign in the Croydon North by-election.
As expected, Steve Reed held the seat for Labour. I congratulated him at the count in the early hours of Friday morning and I was in the Chamber today to see him sworn in. I hope I can forge the same close working relationship with him that I had with Malcolm.
But what does the result tell us about the state of Croydon politics?
Losing an election is never a good result, particularly when your opponent gets nearly two-thirds of the votes. But this was an election for a safe Labour seat in the mid-term of a Government that is a coalition of the other two main parties and that has taken some very tough (but necessary) decisions to get us out of a financial mess - Labour were always going to do well. The only fair way to judge the result is relative to the national polls, to the other by-elections held on the same day or in recent weeks and to how our coalition partner did.
And on that basis, we did pretty well. The swing to Labour from the Conservatives in Croydon North was 8%. In Middlesbrough it was 13.5%. In Rotherham, it was only 6.5% - but that's because a strong showing by UKIP prevented Labour from significantly increasing their vote; it was a very poor result for the Conservatives, who were relegated to fifth place behind UKIP, the BNP and Respect. In Corby two weeks ago, the swing was 12.5%. In Manchester Central on the same day as Corby, it was 12%. The national opinion poll on the morning of the by-election showed a swing of 9.5%. And our coalition partner saw their share of the vote collapse from 14% to 3.5%, losing their deposit in the process.
Why did we do better in Croydon North than the national polls suggested we should, than we did in the other by-elections and than our coalition partner? I believe it's because we had an excellent candidate in Andy Stranack (as the more sensible people in the local Labour Party were honest enough to acknowledge) who didn't fit the negative stereotype some have of Conservatives; who campaigned on the issues that matter to people in Croydon North - jobs, welfare, the cost of living, crime, the NHS and schools; and who, with great support from our Council Group, fought an energetic campaign.
There's a clear lesson here for the Conservative Party, both locally as it prepares for the crucial Council election in 2014 and nationally. Select the right candidates, campaign on the right issues, show people both by the candidates we field and the things we talk about that we are a party that is on the side of ordinary hard-working people and work our socks off and we can do better than the national polls predict.
One final reflection: I am so proud that the people of Croydon North rejected Respect. George Galloway said his party would target black and Muslim voters. He wanted to divide our community along lines of race and faith. But Croydon is too strong a community for that.