Tories confident for by-election

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

For a moment yesterday it appeared that the Conservatives were determined to fight the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election by drawing as little attention to themselves as possible.

John Hudson, the Tory candidate, had apparently been denied an official press conference launch and the presence of either of the two Cabinet ministers charged with hammering the opposition. So it was David Maclean, the Home Office Minister, who turned up in south Lancashire, accompanying Mr Hudson on a visit to an amusements factory.

Hardened by bitter experiences in other campaigns, Mr Hudson's team have eschewed the daily early-morning news conference. Press contact will be "as needed" during walkabouts. And so it was that the media sat down for coffee with Mr Hudson and the minister among the children's fairground rides.

Mr Hudson, 55, was agent to the late and popular MP Geoffrey Dickens, who bequeathed the 4,494 majority that the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats will scrap over with increasing intensity as the 27 July contest looms.

His straight-talking, no- nonsense approach could see him as the mid-term Tory by-election candidate who bucks the trend. Mr Maclean, clearly refreshed by the absence of a "25-year-old from 300 miles away", said as much.

Tony Blair last night highlighted Labour's intention to fight hard by dropping his set- piece speech at two public meetings, which were then given over entirely to a question and answer session with the public. Labour has poured resources into the area in an attempt to capture the seat, including placing 25 full-time staff at the campaign HQ, a disused mill. Phil Woolas, 35, the candidate, belongs to the New Labour trend of being a practising Anglican and regular church-goer.

But it is Chris Davies, the 41-year-old Liberal Democrat candidate, who has a head start in support. Taking the constituency as a whole, the Liberal Democrats hold 50 council seats, compared to the Conservatives' six and Labour's one.