Labour storms to victory

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Ben Chapman (Lab) 22,767 (53%)

Les Byrom (C) 14,879 (34%)

Flo Clucas (Lib Dem) 4,357 (10%)

Lab Maj 7,888 (17% swing C to Lab)

Electorate 60,512

Turnout 43,328 (73%)

1992: C 25,590 (50.8%); majority 8,183 (16.3%); Lab 17,407 (34.6%); Lib Dem 6,581 (13.1%)

Other candidates

Samuelson Anthony (SCPTC) 124

Frederick Asbury (TAG UK) 40

Harold Bence (Co Director) 184

Michael Cullen (Socialist Lab) 156

Philip Gott (Dis C) 148

Geoffrey Mead (Nat Law) 52

Richard North (UK Ind) 410

Colin Palmer (21st Cent) 44

Roger Taylor (Ind) 132

Labour early today snatched Wirral South from the Tories, driving them again into a Commons minority, and leaving John Major a bare two months to try to recover before a May general election.

On an unusually high turnout for a by-election contest of 73 per cent, the blue-chip Conservative majority of 8,183 was wiped out by Ben Chapman, the Labour candidate, who becomes the new MP with a majority of 7,888.

Labour's gain of the Tories' 126th most marginal seat, on a swing of 17 per cent, will hammer government morale and bolster Labour hopes of an outright majority in the general election.

A Labour spokesman said last night: "No party has ever lost a by-election so close to a general election, in a seat they had won at the previous general election, and gone on to win the general election."

And a jubilant John Prescott said today: "The people of Wirral South have rejected the Tories' negative campaign and backed New Labour's positive pledges on education, health, crime, jobs and taxes."

He added: "The message from Wirral South must now be taken to the whole country."

The Tories countered with a calculated leak of their latest "secret" polling, claiming they had reduced Labour's lead to 11 percentage points - arguing that they were well within striking distance with two months' campaigning to go.

Mr Major's close advisers believe they still have all to fight for, arguing that public opinion polls are seriously exaggerating the Labour lead, and that the Conservatives always depress the Labour vote in general election campaigns.

Stephen Dorrell, the Health Secretary, told BBC television's By- election Special today that the voter reaction in Wirral South had been significant. "If they're telling you they're going to vote against you, they don't have to go on to say, `We'll be back by the general election.' But if they volunteer that information, it seems to me there's some significance in the fact they do so."

In Wirral itself, Tory campaign managers were confident that the party would get the seat back in May, though Labour sources said at Westminster: "Tories who have voted Labour in the Wirral cannot be doing so as a protest. There is no time left for the Government to change its ways. We have no doubt that, having taken such a serious decision at this stage of the election cycle, most of them will stay with Labour."

The Wirral South result gave the Conservatives their eighth by- election loss since the 1992 election - with four seats going to the Liberal Democrats, three to Labour and one to the Scottish Nationalists, and not one Conservative seat successfully held.

Paddy Ashdown said that it was the worst by-election wipe-out for any government for more than 160 years. "The voters are saying that it is time to go," the Liberal Democrat leader said.

However, in a clear attempt to give itself maximum room for manoeuvre, and time for a fightback, the Government last night announced a blatant political sweetener for the Ulster Unionists, offering enhanced powers for the Commons Northern Ireland Grand Committee.

Acceding to an Ulster Unionist Party demand, Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said that the grand committee would be given powers to meet in Ulster, and that it would be provided with a legislative role.

Without Ulster Unionist Party support, there is no point in Labour putting down a Commons motion of no confidence, in an attempt to force an early election. Donald Dewar, the Labour Chief Whip, told BBC radio's PM programme last night: "I would like to have gone ahead but there is no point in putting down a motion without the Ulster Unionists."

Mr Major is therefore left free to announce an eventual dissolution of Parliament for 8 April, following completion of his legislative programme, and an Easter break, in time for his preferred option of a 1 May election.

With ministers braced for a weekend of panic over the Tories' showing in Wirral South, the Conservatives' private polling shows that Labour's lead of 19 per cent before Christmas, was being whittled down until Gordon Brown announced Labour's commitment not to increase spending for two years, and to fix the rates of income tax at their present level.

Morale in Conservative Central Office has improved from a low base because of the polling results, it was claimed last night. "The thing that could finish us is the `Time for a change' factor," said one minister, who has seen the polling. "Even some of our own supporters are saying it's not good for democracy to have one party in power for 20 years."

Labour is exploiting that vulnerability by condemning Conservative ambitions to create a "one-party state".