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Ministers want Eastleigh poll put back

(First Edition)

THE Government may break parliamentary convention by postponing the Eastleigh by-election, caused by the death of Stephen Milligan, until June.

Ministers and government business managers are keen to delay the poll until 9 June, the date of the European elections, rather than hold it on 5 May, local election day, as expected.

Pressure for a delay will be bolstered by a Gallup poll in today's Sunday Telegraph which suggests that 64 per cent of voters, including more than a quarter of Conservatives, believe that the Tories give the impression of being 'very sleazy and disreputable'.

The poll of 539 people taken on Friday shows that 56 per cent, including a third of Tory voters, think John Major's back to basics campaign should be scrapped 'in the light of recent events', and only 30 per cent back its continuation.

Senior Tories have privately written off the by-election. The Liberal Democrats would need a swing of 11.6 per cent to achieve victory, but that looks insignificant beside the 35.4 per cent that the party achieved when it won Christchurch last July.

Holding Eastleigh on 9 June would eliminate the risk that a bad result would carry over into the European elections. It would also allow more time for economic recovery which, the party believes, would improve Tory fortunes.

Party managers were encouraged last year when the Christchurch by-election was held late, limiting the damage of the disastrous result via the imminence of the summer holidays.

However, parliamentary tradition is that by-elections are called within three months of the death of a sitting MP, followed by a three-week campaign. That leaves the Tories about two weeks outside the traditional period, and this could provoke a bitter row with opposition parties.

Meanwhile, Labour leaders are allowing backbench supporters of Bryan Gould to make the running in efforts to persuade him to stand down before September, when he is due to return to his native New Zealand.

Sources close to John Smith deny that the Labour leader is putting pressure on Mr Gould to place his Dagenham seat and its 6,733 majority at the disposal of the party, but some Labour backbenchers are furious with Mr Gould for hanging on until the autumn, believing that he is doing so to sustain his parliamentary salary and allowances over the summer recess. This would be worth at least pounds 10,000.

Tony Worthington, Labour's spokesman on Overseas Development, who was taken hostage for 24 hours by Somali gunmen last week, faces the sack from the front bench tomorrow.

Labour whips will tell John Smith to discipline the MP for Clydebank and Milngavie who, they say, defied instructions in joining Mark Robinson, Tory MP for Somerton and Frome, on the trip to Somalia.