Prescott hits the campaign trail; Staffordshire by-election: Deputy leader visits seat left vacant by MP's death

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The Independent Online

At 8.57am yesterday the New Labour, New Britain sign was strategically lowered for the television cameras. At 8.58am the bouquet of red roses was delivered. At 8.59 iced water was poured. At 9am Labour's deputy leader, John Prescott, arrived and announced campaigning had not started in the South East Staffordshire by-election. No one believed him.

Just before Christmas the Conservative MP Sir David Lightbown died.

Mr Prescott arrived in Tamworth dismissing accusations by leading Conservatives that Labour was acting in a far from decent fashion by opening by-election discussions so close to Sir David's death.

Once the prop forward of the Tory Whips office, Sir David was nicknamed "The Enforcer".

The enforcer's reputation will doubtless play its part in the coming Tory campaign. But Mr Prescott played his own role yesterday - "The Terminator", the bringer of bad news to the Tory faithful in the prosperous Midlands market town. The Tories "are now irrevocably divided" both in Parliament and in the country. "We intend to maximise the pressure on them at every possible occasion," said Mr Prescott.

With a 7,192 Tory majority the by-election should be another Labour scalp when voting takes place, expected to be in late March. However, Mr Prescott was keen to emphasise his party would "in no sense be complacent".

In 1992, Sir David's constituency increased both its Tory vote and overall percentage and Labour organisers admitted yesterday: "This is going to be bloody hard work."

The sentiments were echoed as Mr Prescott and Labour's newly NEC-endorsed candidate, local councillor Brian Jenkins, went for a choreographed stroll near the town's castle.

In front of the town hall's statue of Sir Robert Peel, twice prime minister in the last century, a group of Tory voters gathered and an unofficial spokesman admitted: "Yes there is dissent. Yes there is party disunity, yes there are mistakes everywhere but the hard choice will be our party or Labour. The answer will be no to Labour."

Yet Labour controls both the district and county councils. The Tories failed to win any seats in Tamworth's last borough elections in May.

For Labour to lose or even fail to win well would be a disaster for Tony Blair.

In the coming campaign, Tamworth's associations with Sir Robert Peel will almost certainly feature heavily. In 1834, with Sir Robert trying to shake off the ultra-Tory image left by the Duke of Wellington, he effectively renamed his party the Conservatives and produced the first published election address. He laid out the principles of his New Conservatism in a document distributed to the national press, now known as the Tamworth Manifesto.

Last night local Tories began choosing their candidate, who will be trying to win a by-election for the Tories for the first time since victory in Richmond seven years ago.

Mr Prescott denied this was the official campaign launch. "But we've been on an election footing since last year," he said.

t Left-wing MPs could leave the Labour Party to link up with Arthur Scargill's breakaway Socialist Labour Party after the next election, Alan Simpson, secretary of the hard-left Campaign Group of Labour MPs, said yesterday.

MPs would leave if three conditions were fulfilled, he said: "The severing altogether of the trade-union link, the introduction of proportional representation and of state funding of political parties."