Humiliation for Tories at Christchurch: Liberal Democrats romp home with 16,427 majority and record 35% swing

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE LIBERAL Democrats inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Tories in the Christchurch by-election early today with a record swing of 35 per cent, putting John Major's leadership on probation.

Less than a week after winning the vote of confidence in the Commons, Mr Major's authority suffered a devastating blow when the Liberal Democrats overturned the Tory majority of 23,015 in one of the safest Conservative seats in the country.

The massive swing to the Liberal Democrats - the biggest since the war - surpassed the Newbury by-election swing of 28 per cent, on a turnout of 74.6 per cent, and gave Diana Maddock, the Liberal Democrat candidate, a majority of 16,427 as the 60th woman MP. Labour lost its deposit, as its vote was squeezed to 1,453 votes.

The emphatic Tory defeat, with the the party's vote slumping by 20,000 votes, cut the Government's majority in the Commons to 17, and intensified Mr Major's difficulties with the autumn Budget, which is expected to include an unpopular package of public expenditure cuts and tax increases.

Mrs Maddock said: 'Mr Major, if you are listening, the people in this constituency have said no to VAT on fuel . . . . The people here have placed you on probation.'

Tory voters deserted in droves in protest at plans for 17.5 per cent value-added tax on domestic fuel, fears of rising crime, and threats to free prescriptions for pensioners, in spite of assurances by ministers.

Liberal Democrat leaders said that the result could force the Chancellor into a U-turn on VAT. But underlying the result was a strong and bitter sense of betrayal among the voters, who only 15 months ago had backed Mr Major. They openly criticised his Government as incompetent.

The defeat will increase the pressure on the Prime Minister to use the coming months to rebuild his broken authority. His critics were last night giving him until next June's European elections to stop the rot, but he will have to start with a commanding performance at the party conference in October.

Cabinet ministers attempted to limit the damage by discounting the defeat as inevitable in the face of the protest vote. But the Liberal Democrats claimed Christchurch signalled a lasting shift away from the Tories, which could threaten more seats in the Conservatives' heartlands in the South of England in a general election.

The landslide threatened bitter recriminations within the Tory party, with criticism of Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman, and Rob Hayward, the Conservative candidate, who was being made the scapegoat by disenchanted party workers.

Sir Norman said the Government would have to listen to the voters' fears on law and order, and over the compensation on VAT for those on low incomes, to be announced in the Budget. But he said there would be no U-turn on VAT. 'We need to get out into the country to set out our policies much more directly to the public than we have hitherto. I am not remotely complacent. But I am not going to be pushed into a great U-turns at this point,' Sir Norman said on BBC television.

'The Maastricht Bill did have the effect of dividing the party. It may be we are paying the price for that. But we are going to put those divisions behind us,' he said.

The deep divisions in the Tory pary were like Labour's splits in the early 1980s, said Jack Straw, a Shadow Cabinet member. He said the Tories would be 'mad' not to change their policy on VAT. 'The Tories are in very deep trouble, not least because of the very great sense of betrayal that lifelong Tory voters feel,' Mr Straw said.

The result confirmed recent opinion poll findings showing the standing of the Prime Minister and his Government at an all-time low. Liberal Democrat leaders disclosed that they were targeting 17 Tory seats in the South which could fall with a swing of 6.5 per cent, achieved in April 1992, in North Cornwall.

----------------------------------------------------------------- VOTING RESULTS ----------------------------------------------------------------- D Maddock (Lib Dem) 33,164 R Hayward (Cons) 16,737 N Lickley (Labour) 1,453 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Turnout 74.6% Swing 35% Majority 16,427 1992 general election: Conservatives 36,627, Lib Dem 13,612; Labour 6,997. Cons majority 23,015 -----------------------------------------------------------------

Andrew Marr, page 21