Christchurch Conservatives apply the stiff upper lip

THE only Tory, it was suggested on Friday morning, who might welcome a defeat for the Government in that night's confidence vote was Rob Hayward. Only in a general election might the Conservatives be confident of taking Christchurch. It is not easy to raise a laugh out of the struggling Tory campaign team - but that succeeded, writes Alex Renton.

Mr Hayward, who lost his Bristol seat at the general election, is bracing himself for defeat. Sitting over a pub lunch, he was philosophical: 'I think far too much is made of by-elections - there hasn't been a historically significant one since Hull in 1966 (which led to a general election). Yet, if the Conservatives lose Christchurch they can lose anything.'

Alex Carlile, the Liberal Democrat employment spokesman, was the first of his party to declare a victory - at a press conference. And he made a rasher promise: 'It is inconceivable that there should be a (Liberal Democrat) coalition with the Conservative Party led by John Major.'

This worried Liberal Democrat campaigners, for the threat that a Liberal Democrat vote paves the way for a Labour administration is perhaps the only card the Conservatives have left to play. 'There's a lot of undecideds out there, and they were all Conservatives,' said Diana Maddock yesterday, as she toured a shopping arcade. Yet a Maddock flesh-pressing tour is very different from a Hayward one. The Tory - who has avoided contact with the voter in the wild, preferring to meet them in their sitting-rooms - is a furtive canvasser, expecting grief. He gets it. Mrs Maddock progresses in a stately way, wreathed in smiles, and she gets them in return. Mr Hayward's has been a low-key campaign. Now, perhaps too late, a little aggression has entered the Tory effort. At a Friday night public meeting, Mr Hayward was fired by anti-Maastricht hecklers and mounted an attack on everything from Mrs Maddock's German car to her public spending plans: 'Her list comes to pounds 8bn extra that she's promised to spend - that's 6p on income tax.' You could sense the satisfaction in the hall - packed with members of the local Conservative association - as the candidate at last gave them something to fight with.

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