Blair advised against an appearance on Labour's by-election campaign trail

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair is `unlikely' to go to Beckenham to support Labour's by-election campaign. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, says the Liberal Democrats are claiming it is a signal that Labour doubts that it can win.

Tony Blair broke with tradition by becoming the first Prime Minister for decades to campaign in the Uxbridge by-election, but party sources said yesterday that he was "unlikely" to repeat it in the by-election at Beckenham.

William Hague, the Tory leader, made a brief appearance at a grant-maintained girls' school in the constituency yesterday and Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, is due to arrive on Monday. The Liberal Democrats claimed the Prime Minister's reluctance to go to Beckenham was a sign that Labour doubts it can win.

"If he doesn't come here, it just shows they are are afraid of being beaten. He may have learnt his lesson from Uxbridge. He may have felt damaged by that," said Edward Davey, the MP and "minder" for the Liberal Democrat candidate in the by-election, 25-year-old Rosemary Vetterlein.

Mr Blair was warned that he was fashioning a rod for his own back by going to Uxbridge, which the Tories held, and it could be a handy weapon with which to beat the Government if he showed up in the leafy Tory suburbs in south London now.

The by-election, set for 20 November, was caused by the resignation of Piers Merchant, the Tory MP, after he was caught on video under a "moving duvet" with a Soho club hostess who was also a Tory supporter. But sleaze could backfire for Labour while controversy is raging over Labour Party funding from the chiefs of Formula One motor racing.

On paper, Beckenham is the sort of rock-solid Tory seat that Labour could not dream of winning before 1 May. Bob Hughes, who stood for Labour in the general election, enjoyed a swing from the Tories of 15 per cent, but still failed to win the seat.

He shrugged off the Tory winning margin of 4,953 but admitted that he is encouraging tactical voting by Liberal Democrat supporters, whose votes could hold the key to the result.

Jacquie Lait, the Tory candidate, held a two-minute silence under a Spanish Oak tree with 11 supporters during canvassing yesterday. They may have been privately praying for the Liberal Democrat vote to hold up.