After seizing the once-safe Tory seat with a less than 2,000- vote majority over Labour, Paddy Ashdown's jubilant supporters were early today celebrating a result which will reassure his party that it still remains a pivotal force in British politics despite Tony Blair's appeal to the centre ground.
Mr Ashdown said that the victory of the Liberal Democrats' Chris Davies - the party's fourth straight by-election gain from the Tories since the 1992 general election - was "a superb result" and added: "The Government's majority has tonight been cut to single figures by a Liberal Democrat victory.''
Labour's second place was a record-breaking advance from third place in 1992. The party secured 34 per cent of the vote after an aggressive campaign against Mr Davies which had seen Tony Blair make three separate visits to the Pennine constituency. The Labour vote rose by 14 percentage points over its showing in the general election.
But Mr Ashdown declared: "Even with the Labour hype of the last year, and the fact they've thrown everything into winning this by-election, the Liberal Democrats have proved that when it comes to real votes in real ballot boxes, the British people choose Liberal Democrats to defeat the Government.''
The victorious Mr Davies said last night that the people of Littleborough and Saddleworth had "spoken for Britain" and that the result showed that the electorate not only wanted changes but a party that said "how they will be carried out and how they will be paid for".
Although the Conservative vote held up better than some of its supporters had feared, the result will still deeply disappoint the Tories, coming three weeks after John Major's successful "put up or shut up" challenge to his party opponents. It brings to 33 the number oif successive by-elections which the Tories have failed to win since they held the Yorkshire seat of Richmond in 1989.
And while the Tories fared markedly worse than they did in the Eastleigh by-election - where they also came third - in June last year, Labour demonstrated its resurgence by improving significantly on its own showing at Eastleigh, where it had only 28 per cent of the vote.
A notably acrimonious and personal campaign between the two opposition parties - which will be widely seen as at least a temporary setback to the tentative overtures about mutual co-operation from both Mr Ashdown and Mr Blair - was still being bitterly fought as voters went to the polls.
The Liberal Democrats cried foul over free copies of a special issue of the Daily Mirror circulated in the constituency which included a report about Mr Davies's failed marketing and public relations business. The dispute was only the last in a campaign in which Peter Mandelson, the highly public "minder" to Labour's Phil Woolas, had been strongly criticised for exploiting support for examining the case for decriminalising cannabis.
With the Tories forced into the role of bystanders in the last week of the campaign, one Conservative official said yesterday: "The hot weather has brought out the worst in the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties. We have had reports of Labour Party tellers chasing Liberal activists down the streets because the Liberals are pulling Labour posters off the Methodist polling station."
A senior Labour Party spokesman insisted: "Our decision to take this campaign seriously has been vindicated.''
Flatly rejecting accusations that party campaigners had indulged in any "dirty tricks", he went on: "All we have done is seek to put forward positive policies and draw attention to the inconsistencies between the national leadership of the Liberal Democrats and the views of their candidate."
In 1992 the Tories had a majority of 4,494, with 44 per cent of the vote, compared with the Liberal Democrats' 36 per cent and Labour on 20 per cent.
The official estimate of the turnout in yesterday's by-election was 64.5 per cent.
'Moral victory', page 2
Davies (Lib Dem) 16,231
Woolas (Lab) 14,238
Hudson (Con) 9,934
Lib Dem majority 1,993
Turnout 64.5%Reuse content