CCHQ was deserted today. There weren't many Tory MPs in London. Every available, spare Conservative was sent to Henley. Even Ed Llewellyn, the Leader's Chief of Staff, was spotted there this evening - even though earlier in the day he was in Paris with David Cameron. The mass commitment to Henley wasn't because the party is panicking but because it's taking no risks. No complacency is the message that Team Cameron are repeating endlessly.
It would be an overstatement to say there was panic ten days ago but there was certainly concern. The LibDem machine was in full attack mode - targeting John Howell's links with a property developer and wrongly suggesting he was a foe of the greenbelt. Other similar and unfounded attacks worried the team around Stephen Gilbert and Chris Grayling MP. They knew they were facing a LibDem by-election machine that has been running rings around the Conservatives for twenty five years. This is the machine capable of turning opinion polls upside down. Think of the Dunfermline result more than two years ago. Rather than get into the gutter with the LibDems or ignore them - the up-until-now default tactics - the party chose a different approach this time. Leaflets were put out forcefully rebutting the LibDem attacks but also loudly complaining that they were fighting a negative campaign and that voters deserved better. In the last few days the Conservatives are confident that this tactic has worked and the doorstep feedback is that voters are unhappy with the LibDem campaign.
If the party does do well tonight it will be a victory as satisfying to CCHQ in its own way as Crewe and Nantwich. Think Romsey. Think Bromley. The LibDem by-election machine has been a formidable opponent of Tory hopes for many years.
What will a good result look like then? Turnout will probably be half that of the General Election so we'll see a big drop in the headline majority. The Conservatives will be looking at the percentage majority. If it's clearly better than Bromley they'll be happy. The LibDem machine will have been shown to be in retreat.
The campaign literature probably could have been better but the campaign got off to a flying start with a leaflet that emphasised John Howell's local credentials - a message that subsequent literature probably didn't do enough to reinforce. Overall, however, the campaign emphasised the importance to voters of keeping Brown under pressure and the whole cost of living issue - motoring costs are important to the many rural voters in Henley.
We expect the result at about 3am tomorrow morning.