Ashdown and Blair at war on doorsteps

By-election: campaign becomes statistical battleground
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Indy Politics

Political Correspondent

The Liberal Democrats moved swiftly yesterday in an attempt to demolish a Labour estimate that it was only 2 to 3 per cent behind in the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election race.

The Labour move to up the ante in the campaign for the contest on 27 July came as Tony Blair, the party leader, told Greater Manchester Radio: "I don't say we are home and dry but our canvass returns show the Tories in a poor third position. We are vying with the Liberal Democrats for first place."

The campaign headquarters for Phil Woolas, Labour's candidate and a London- based official of the GMB general union, disclosed afterwards that a canvass on Monday of one-fifth (13,000 people) of the electorate indicated that both the main challengers for the seat bequeathed by the late Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens could secure a percentage vote in the mid to upper thirties. The Tories, by contrast, were trailing in the mid to lower twenties.

Peter Mandelson MP, Mr Woolas's campaign manager, and the former party communications chief, later charged Chris Rennard, the Liberal Democrat director of campaigns and communications, with ordering that Tory support be "talked up" in order to bolster the chances of Chris Davies, the Liberal Democrat candidate.

"This is for one reason, to frighten voters into thinking that with the Tories still in the race they must plump for the party that came second in 1992," Mr Mandelson said.

The Labour number-crunching provoked predictable scorn among the Liberal Democrats. Mr Rennard said: "At the last general election Labour claimed they were within 1,000 of winning this seat. In fact, they were 13,000 behind."

On a whistle-stop tour to the daily news conference at a railway station, Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader said: "The truth of it is that history is against them [Labour]. Voting Labour lets the Tories in."

Labour was meanwhile piling on the tension for Mr Davies, repeating a daily claim - consistently disputed - that he supported relaxing the drugs laws. Labour sought to turn the knife last night as it rushed out a campaign leaflet relating that the Liberal Democrat candidate for Winchester, who - like Mr Davis - backed last years' conference vote on investigating legal reforms, had been dropped.

Mr Woolas opened up a new front, demanding to know why the Liberal Democrats were "soft on sleaze" in the wake of the vote by the party president Robert Maclennan to delay new rules on disclosure of MPs' outside earnings. Mr Davies hit back, claiming yesterday's editorial in the Guardian newspaper had backed Mr Maclennan's "political skill".

Cyril Smith, the anti-Labour former Liberal Democrat MP for Rochdale, last night added his considerable weight to Mr Davies's campaign, despite criticising Mr Ashdown for seeking to forge closer links with Labour.

Having installed 20 lines, Michael Portillo-style, for discreet telephone canvassing, the Tories were engaged in their daily dispersal technique - keeping local eccentric and former Dickens agent John Hudson away from the rigours of a full-frontal news conference.

Mr Hudson's forte is the original turn of homespun phrase. One such is :"He's a good whist player; he's not giving out to the other side what the trumps are," a reference to John Major's handling of the European single-currency opt-out.

His campaign is conducted mostly by reference to the popularity, even with political opponents, of the late Mr Dickens.

So far spurned by that other key political double act, Michael Heseltine, Deputy Prime Minister, and Brian Mawhinney, the party chairman, an ebullient Mr Hudson yesterday captured the attentions of Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, on a tour with special constables of relatively crime-free Uppermill.

"Let's prove all the pundits wrong," said Mr Howard with typical gusto. One local Tory loyalist, George Kershaw, was more realistic: "I would not say he's a good candidate."