By-election mastermind puts his money on a double for Lib Dems

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Indy Politics

Lord Rennard, the Liberal Democrats' election guru, has a string of by-election victories to his name. He has confounded political expectations by overturning massive Tory and Labour majorities in seats such as Eastbourne, Newbury and most recently Brent East in north-west London. But tomorrow, he will face the greatest test of his career as a campaign strategist.

Lord Rennard, the Liberal Democrats' election guru, has a string of by-election victories to his name. He has confounded political expectations by overturning massive Tory and Labour majorities in seats such as Eastbourne, Newbury and most recently Brent East in north-west London. But tomorrow, he will face the greatest test of his career as a campaign strategist.

In by-elections in Birmingham and Leicester he will attempt to move the Liberal Democrats from third place to steal two safe Labour seats from Tony Blair. Lord Rennard is convinced an election coup is possible and has placed personal bets at William Hill that the Liberal Democrats can gain both.

The Liberal Democrat chief executive won a lot of money on the Brent East by-election, where his party crushed a massive Labour majority last year, so his electoral instincts cannot be ignored. But he admits that the task in Leicester and Birmingham is a tough one.

Last night Lord Rennard said canvassing returns showed that in both constituencies Labour and the Liberal Democrats were virtually neck and neck. A mere 1,000 votes could decide the outcome. "We sense we can win but it will be very close. What the canvassers are saying in both seats is that the feeling is very much like it was in Brent East. It's very close in both. In both of them could well be within 1,000 votes either way. We think the movement is in our direction. It's a good bet that we could win."

But unlike in Brent East, the Liberal Democrats have been forced to build up support in a shorter campaign and to stretch resources between two Midlands constituencies.

And stung by their battering at the hands of the Liberal Democrats last year in Brent, both Labour and the Tories have rallied their troops and have been fighting more aggressive campaigns.

"We think the movement is in our direction. But they have both been very short by-election campaigns," he said. "Sarah Teather [the MP who won Brent East] and I are both going to campaign meetings [this] morning to gee up the troops and tell them it will be terribly close."

Lord Rennard is not one for exaggerating his party's standing in the polls and is adamant that such a practice damagescredibility.

Since his first election campaign in Liverpool as a 12 year old, when he delivered Liberal leaflets in a city council poll, he has gauged the political mood like a weather vane. By 14 he was organising canvassers and by age 20 he was running local elections in the city.

He joined the Liberal Democrats' campaign department in 1989 as its sole employee when the party was at its lowest ebb. A string of election victories followed and Lord Rennard was rewarded by Paddy Ashdown with a peerage.

"The idea that the party couldn't win in an area just didn't occur to me. I grew up seeing Liberals winning, by identifying local issues of concern and by building a base showing we could win."

Now, with public trust in Labour and the Tories waning, he is betting that his party can overtake the Tories in the polls by the next election and form the government by 2009.

"I am determined that the Lib Dems don't understate our potential for the next general election. I think that we will hold what we have and continue making good gains off the Tories," he said. "I think a Lib-Dem government is possible in 2009. I think we can make significant gains at the next general election. Quite the scale of how we move up I don't know. I think it's possible to leapfrog the Conservatives in 2005." If the party can win Leicester and Hodge Hill in Birmingham that would lead to "a cluster effect" that would make gains in neighbouring Midlands seats easier for the Liberal Democrats at the next election.

But winning the by-elections would require swings of 28 per cent in Birmingham and 20 per cent in Leicester. In Leicester the Liberal Democrats will have to squeeze the Tory vote and support for the anti-war coalition Respect.

Lord Rennard believes the Tories have the most to lose if Labour holds on. "If the Conservatives are relegated to third in both, what it will show is we can be the next party of government, not the Conservatives."

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