Lib Dems set for runaway Eastleigh win: 'Independent'/NOP survey shows Tories face defeat if by-election held now. Donald Macintyre reports

THE Liberal Democrats would have a resounding victory in Eastleigh if the by-election was held tomorrow, according to an NOP poll for the Independent.

The findings will intensify the apprehension of the Tory high command about the next four months, which are expected to see heavy losses in the May local elections, and the European elections in June. The other striking finding of the poll is that the economic recovery - talked up again in a speech by the Prime Minister in Scotland on Friday - has yet to make an impact on the voters in the Hampshire constituency left vacant by the death of Stephen Milligan. This suggests that, at least as far as the South is concerned, we are still witnessing, at best, an 'experts' recovery', which is not yet believed by most electors.

Only 12 per cent of respondents expect their personal economic circumstances to improve in 1994, with 50 per cent expecting them to get worse and 5 per cent expecting no change. Of the Tory defectors, 53 per cent expect their circumstances to deteriorate. The figures also suggest publicity for the tax rises in the two 1993 Budgets have left electors steeling themselves for big tax hikes in April.

But, although the findings show that the large majority of Tory defections since the general election have been to the Liberal Democrats, they also show that Labour could scrape to victory - in a knife-edge race with the Tories - if it secured a decisive early lead.

When Liberal Democrats are asked how they would vote if they thought Labour had the best chance of beating the Tories, the consequent figures would be Tories 37 per cent, Labour 41 per cent and Liberal Democrats 22 per cent. But if Labour voters thought the Liberal Democrats had the best chance of victory - which on present showing they easily do - Labour defections would hand the Liberal Democrats 56 per cent of the vote, with the Tories on 33 and Labour on only 10 - a massive swing of 23 per cent to the Liberal Democrats. The strength of the Liberal Democrat base is further underlined by the fact that of the 25 per cent of 1992 Tory voters who have defected, 22 per cent have gone to the Lib Dems and only 3 per cent to Labour.

The main comfort for John Major is that it would make little difference to the outcome if he was replaced as party leader. Only 9 per cent say they would be more likely to vote Tory with another leader, while 3 per cent say they would be less likely to do so. And 86 per cent say it would make no difference.

The Tories are also likely to seize on the figure showing that they are still ahead on economic competence - with 28 per cent thinking they are the most competent party - to show that a defeat would be no more than a mid-term protest vote. But while this figure compares with 18 per cent for Labour and an even more impressive 12 per cent for the Lib Dems, the 'don't know' category is the biggest - at 38 per cent.

Finally, by a convincing majority, the electors of Eastleigh favoured air strikes against the Serbs if they failed to observe Nato's ultimatum to stop shelling Sarajevo: 53 per cent were in favour, compared with 28 against, and, of those in favour, 72 per cent agreed, 'even if it leads Britain to become involved in the Bosnian civil war'.

NOP interviewed a representative quota sample of 765 adults in 38 sampling points across the Eastleigh constituency, between 17 and 20 February.

----------------------------------------------------------------- 'Independent'/NOP survey ----------------------------------------------------------------- As you are probably aware, the MP for Eastleigh died recently and there will be a by-election in this constituency. Which party will you vote for?

(All giving a party a vote) Conservative. . . . . . . . . . . .32% Labour. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .25% Liberal Democrat. . . . . . . . . .43% Other. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1% If it becomes clear that the Liberal Democratas have the best chance of beating the Conservatives, which party would you vote for? (All giving a party a vote) Conservative. . . . . . . . . . . .33% Labour. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .10% Liberal Democrat. . . . . . . . . .56% Other. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1% If it becomes clear that Labour has the best chance of beating the Conservatives, which party would you vote for? (All giving a party a vote) Conservative. . . . . . . . . . . .37% Labour. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .41% Liberal Democrat . . . . . . . . .22% Other. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1%

Would you be more or less likely to vote Conservative if someone other than John Major was leader of the party or would it make no difference? More likely . . . . . . . . . . . . .9% Less likely. . . . . . . . . . . . . .3% No difference . . . . . . . . . . . .86% Don't know. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3% Thinking more generally, which party is most competent to manage the economy? Conservative. . . . . . . . . . . . .28% Labour. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .18% Liberal Democrat . . . . . . . . . .12% Other. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .4% Don't know. . . . . . . . . . . . . .38% Over the next 12 months do you think that the financial position of your own househld will get . . . Better . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .12% Worse. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .50% Stay about the same . . . . . . . . .35% Don't know. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2% Do you agree or disagree that Britain and its allies should carry out air strikes against the Serbs if they refuse to follow Nato's ultimatum to stop shelling Sarajevo? Agree with air strikes. . . . . . . . 53% Disagree with air strikes . . . . . . 28%. Neither. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4% Don't Know . . . . . . . . . . . . . .15% Do you think the air strikes should be carried out even if it leads Britain to becoming involved in the Bosnian civil war? Yes. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .72% No . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .21% Don't Know. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .7% -----------------------------------------------------------------

Leading article, page 15

(Photograph omitted)

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