Labour exploits issue in poll

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With two weeks to go to polling day, Staffordshire South East is in danger of becoming the "mad cow" by-election.

Gavin Strang, Labour's agriculture spokesman, sought to exploit the BSE issue yesterday with a visit to a dairy farm in the constituency and a photo-call with Flo, a prize milk cow under sentence of death.

Until the beef crisis erupted, the Conservatives had hoped the by-election in the prosperous Birmingham overspill town of Tamworth would proclaim the turning of the tide in the party's abysmal electoral fortunes.

There has only been one previous by-election in a Conservative seat vulnerable to Labour this Parliament, in Dudley West in December 1994, when Labour's Ian Gibson won with a post-war record 29 per cent swing.

During that campaign the Government was defeated in the Commons on VAT on fuel and Tory party unity was shattered when eight MPs were temporarily expelled from the party in Parliament.

The Tories had hoped their new-found unity on Europe in the run-up to this weekend's Turin summit, combined with good economic news, would give their bluff, reassuring ex-Army candidate Jimmy James of a fighting chance.

But then came last week's announcement. "It did cause absolute panic and I wonder if it could have waited," said Tom Cope, the dairy farmer visited by the Labour campaign yesterday. He said it would be like "losing a member of the family" if Flo who was born in 1989 had to be slaughtered.

9 Staffordshire South East 1992 general election: D Lightbown (C) 29,180, B Jenkins (Lab) 21,988, G Penlington (Lib Dem) 5,540. Conservative majority 7,192.