Blair refuses to join by-election bandwagon looms

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR angered Labour officials yesterday when he rejected their request for him to join the Eddisbury by-election campaign. Labour strategists were convinced a prime ministerial flying visit to the Cheshire constituency would help the party pull off an unexpected victory on Thursday in a contest where the Tories started as the firm favourites. But after a tussle between Downing Street and Millbank, a spokesman for Mr Blair said: "If the diary was different he might well have gone to Eddisbury, but it's not."

The Tories, who had a majority of 1,185 in Eddisbury at the general election, claimed Mr Blair was running scared because aides had advised him Labour would lose the byelection. "The Prime Minister only fights battles he knows he can win," said Michael Ancram, the Conservatives' chairman.

Labour officials still hope to persuade Mr Blair to visit the constituency, where the party has put the foxhunting ban at the forefront of the campaign. Today, David Blunkett, (the 10th Cabinet member to arrive) and John Prescott, visit. Today, too, William Hague makes an appearance. But he will put Europe at the top of the agenda.

To Labour, the Tories' attempt to play the euro card is a sign that hunting is playing well for the party - and Millbank's determination to turn the by-election into a referendum on the bloodsport seems in overdrive. Margaret Hanson, Labour's candidate, has stressed she "cannot wait for a ban".

In Torporley, a village where huntsmen's flags decorate the streets, most voters do not appear passionate either way about the bloodsport. Labour strategists, however, insist there are many floating middle-class voters in Eddisbury who are so fed up with the behaviour of the hunters they will vote on Thursday. But maybe it won't be on that issue. "People would welcome it much more if they did more to tackle youth crime. Teenagers have nothing to do around here," said one voter.

It is the focus on "real issues" affecting rural communities that Stephen O'Brien, the Conserative candidate, is concentrating on.