By-elections put parties in the mood for a fight

Party organisers are gearing up for a spate of by-elections in the next few weeks. A death, a resignation and a court decision have left voters in three areas wondering who their future MP will be. Fran Abrams weighs up the odds.

Beckenham Conservatives met the party chairman, Lord Parkinson, last night to discuss the resignation of their MP Piers Merchant, sparking rumours that a replacement could be elected before Christmas.

Although no-one would disclose the meeting, party sources suggested Central Office was keen to call a by-election as soon as possible. Mr Merchant resigned on Tuesday after renewed allegations of an affair with an 18-year-old researcher. The local party association's executive will meet tomorrow to decide its next move.

However, some sources said the Beckenham by-election could be held on 27 November, coinciding with the most likely date for the by-election which must be held in Winchester.

Winchester's new Liberal Democrat MP, Mark Oaten, must defend his seat against its former Conservative incumbent, Gerry Malone, after a court decided that his two-vote victory in May was invalid. Although the election is bound to be close-run, the Liberal Democrats seem relatively confident. As a sitting member Mr Oaten is bound to have gained status and local recognition.

The Paisley by-election, caused by the suicide of the Labour MP Gordon McMaster, will be held on 6 November. Labour sources confirmed last night that the date would be announced this week in the London Gazette, the official channel for the writ to be moved while Parliament is not sitting.

Labour's Paisley candidate will be Douglas Alexander, 30, a former speechwriter for Gordon Brown and the late Labour leader John Smith.

The Tories have selected a local florist, Sheila Laidlaw, 58, to fight the seat, but the real contest will be between Labour and the Scottish National Party candidate, Ian Blackford, 36, a financial analyst.

Mr McMaster regained Paisley South with 21,482 votes at the general election to the SNP's 8,732. The Liberal Democrats had 3,500 and the Conservatives 3,200. Despite the safe nature of the seat, Labour is bound to fear that scandals surrounding the former MP's death could damage its vote. Paul Mack, a controversial councillor accused of spreading rumours about him, is to stand independently.

There were no immediate takers for the Beckenham seat last night, although more than 300 applicants are expected. Former ministers who lost their seats in May were thought to be weighing up the idea, though Chris Patten is said to be busy writing a book and Malcolm Rifkind is said to want a Scottish seat.

Yesterday Michael Portillo again appeared to rule himself out - his friends had said it was too soon - though some cynics said he might allow himself to be persuaded to stand.

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