Brooke 'gaffe' could backfire on Tories: Christchurch By-Election: National Heritage minister warns that protest vote carries threat of early general election

A Conservative defeat at the Christchurch by-election could accelerate a general election and put Labour in power, wavering Tory voters were warned yesterday by Peter Brooke, the Secretary of State for National Heritage.

Mr Brooke's remarks at a campaign press conference risked backfiring on the Tory candidate, Rob Hayward, and were seen by opposing candidates as another blunder by the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Mr Brooke gained a reputation for gaffes after outraging Ulster Unionists by singing Clementine on Irish television on the same day as the IRA killed a group of Protestant workers.

Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, who will be joining the campaign tonight, tried to undo the damage: 'I don't think it makes any difference to the timing of the general election,' he said on BBC radio.

But Jack Straw, a member of the Shadow Cabinet, said that Mr Brooke had exposed the Government's 'internal anxieties' over the prospect of seeing its majority cut to 17.

John Major's warning that voting Liberal Democrat might let Labour into office, proved a potent weapon against wavering Tory voters at the general election. But, 15 months later, Tory voters in Christchurch are showing greater disenchantment with Mr Major's leadership.

Mr Brooke, replying to a question by the Independent, said that, in the past, the Liberal Democrats had said that the voters could afford a protest vote when the Government had a majority of 100 or 140. With its majority now down to 18, that was no longer true. 'If, as a consequence of winning the seat, the general election is brought nearer as, by definition, its majority shrinks, then the electors of Christchurch voting Liberal Democrat and not voting Labour will need to ask themselves whether they wish to be confronted with a general election at which a Labour Government might be elected,' he said.

The mortality details showed that the Government's majority would shrink if it continued to lose by-elections, said Mr Brooke, who compared Mr Major's difficulties with the end of the Attlee government in 1950-51, when the Labour majority was reduced and the Tories under Winston Churchill turned Labour out of office.

Mr Brooke also said that if Mr Major was forced into an early election by the loss of his majority, it could make it more difficult for the Tories to win. 'If you bring the election at a time which is not of the Government's choosing, you make a particular result more or less likely.'

Many Tory voters in Christchurch are threatening to vote Liberal Democrat as a protest against the Government. Mr Hayward continues to get a hostile reception from pensioners. When the Tory candidate asked one elderly woman if she had any issues she wished to raise, she replied: 'Have you got two or three days?'

Archie Kirkwood, supporting the Liberal Democrat candidate, Diana Maddock, urged his party not to become complacent over suggestions that the swing from the Tories might qualify for the Guinness Book of Records. They need a 20 per cent swing to overcome the Tory majority of 23,015, which makes Christchurch one of the safest Conservative seats in the country, but the signs are that it will exceed the 28 per cent swing achieved in winning Newbury.

Fourteen candidates are to contest the by-election after the deadline for nominations passed today. The Tory vote could be damaged by Andrew Bannon, who is standing as 'the Conservative candidate', and will be first on the ballot paper.

The full list is: Andrew Bannon, the Conservative candidate; Tara Bardot Jackson, Buy the Daily Sport Party; Mark Belcher, standing as Ian for King; John Crockard, the Highlander IV Wednesday Promotion Night Party; Karl Fitzhugh, the Alfred Chicken Party; Mark Griffiths, the Natural Law Party; Robert Hayward, Conservative; Peter Hollyman, Save the National Health Service; Nigel Lickley, Labour; Diana Maddock, Liberal Democrat; Peter Newman, Sack Graham Taylor Party; Alan Sked, Anti-Maastricht Ante-Federalist League; Lord David Sutch, Monster Raving Loony Rock-Roll Party; John Walley, Rainbow Alliance Coalition.

(Photograph omitted)