By-election heavyweights come out fighting

John Rentoul sees the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Labour leader sparring in Saddleworth
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Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, waded into the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election yesterday with a fierce attack on Tony Blair, the Labour leader, visiting the constituency for the third time.

Mr Heseltine derided the image of "New Labour" as the product of "amateur marketing consultants", comparing Mr Blair to Harold Wilson, who "sounded good in opposition" but was a "disaster in government".

Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, flew into the constituency by helicopter for a 75-minute visit, and dismissed the idea that he and the Deputy Prime Minister were competing for attention.

"Hezza and myself coming here in partnership is exactly how it should be," he said.

But Mr Clarke's dashing entrance was spoiled slightly as he stopped to brush aside his comment last year that it was "impossible for the Government to win by-elections." He admitted hesitantly: "We have lost a few recently."

Mr Blair toured the constituency in an open-topped bus, canvassing undecided voters who had been invited to meet him by party workers telephoning from a computerised database of the electorate.

Mr Blair claimed that, with the Conservatives effectively out of the race, Labour was gaining on the Liberal Democrat front-runner.

"They were late to start shifting but the shift has started in the last week or few days. There is no doubt that the shift is towards us - the question is whether it is enough to take us through," he said.

Mr Heseltine, speaking at a public meeting in Uppermill, renewed his attack on Mr Blair's CND past.

"In the vital defence of our nation, how can anyone with any sense of history, with any understanding of the frailty of international relationships, with any pride in Britain's armed services, seriously contemplate a Labour Prime Minister who was a member of CND, an advocate of one-sided British disarmament, intellectually lined up with the mobs on the streets and the protest groups of the 1980s?"

He issued an old-style rallying call to Conservative supporters: "I say to every Tory: wake up to the confidence trick that New Labour represents. Let us launch a crusade of self- confidence. Confidence in ourselves, in our achievements, in our country."

Mr Blair responded by identifying Mr Heseltine with the Tories' expected defeat in the by-election tomorrow. "Mr Heseltine has made this by-election his own crusade," he said.