Blow for Tories as majority is reduced in by-election

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The Independent Online
The Tories' fragile morale took a further blow last night after the party's majority was cut in the Beckenham by-election. They also faced defeat in the re-run poll in Winchester. Fran Abrams watched the results come in.

There was relief mixed with dismay for the Tories in Beckenham last night as they saw the margin between themselves and Labour reduced to 1,227 from almost 5,000 in May.

In Winchester, where a second by-election was taking place, further disappointment was expected for William Hague as early predictions suggested that the Liberal Democrats would win the former Conservative seat comfortably.

Welcoming her election to the Beckenham seat, left vacant by the resignation of Piers Merchant, Jacqui Lait thanked the voters of the area.

"We have fought this campaign on the grounds of the issues that they have raised with us and these are the issues that I addressed," she said. "I campaigned on and I have every intention as MP for Beckenham of continuing to campaign on the issues the people of Beckenham want me to raise in the House of Commons."

She held Beckenham with 13,162 votes to 11,935 for Labour's Bob Hughes. The Liberal Democrat candidate, Rosemary Vetterlein, gained 5,864 votes. The turnout was low, at just 43.7 per cent, down from 74 per cent in May.

Mr Hughes said the result was "a slap in the face" for William Hague. "Despite all the talk of a fresh future for the Tory Party here in Beckenham ... voters stayed at home rather than vote for William Hague's party," he said.

In the general election Mr Merchant had a majority of 4,953, reduced from 22,700 in 1992, when Beckenham was the 26th safest Tory seat in the country. There had been some anger in the constituency, though, over his decision to stand in May despite newspaper reports about his relationship with 18 year-old Anna Cox. Last month further revelations led to his resignation.

Mrs Lait was formerly the MP for Hastings and Rye, but lost her seat on 1 May to Labour's Michael Foster, who turned a Tory majority of 6,634 into a Labour majority of 2,560.

The Liberal Democrats were seeking to hold Winchester, where their candidate, Mark Oaten, was declared winner by two votes in May only to have the decision overturned by the high court. The court ruled that the former Tory health minister, Gerry Malone, would have won by two votes if 55 unstamped ballot papers had been counted.

The turnout was high in Winchester at 68.9 per cent, down from 78.6 per cent in May.

Yesterday posters were displayed at the 76 polling stations in the constituency, reminding votes to ensure that their ballot papers were stamped with the official mark.

Mr Oaten alleged that another candidate - Richard Huggett, who stood as Top Choice Liberal Democrat - creamed off more than 600 votes meant for him.

Mr Huggett stood again this time as a Literal Democrat, but Liberal Democrat workers wore sandwich boards near polling stations in an effort to avoid confusion.