Cameron out on the stump – but does he really want to win?

David Cameron made political history yesterday by being the first Prime Minister to go campaigning in a by-election which, it is widely suspected, he is desperate to lose. The Prime Minister did not say that, of course. He insisted that the Conservative candidate, Kashif Ali, and his helpers are out to win Thursday's contest in Oldham East and Saddleworth.

"Of course I want people to vote for Kashif Ali." he said, standing amid dozens of smashed vehicles during a visit to an Oldham car-repair shop. "He's a very good candidate. He fought a very good campaign. He was born locally, he lives locally and he was educated locally."

He added that the Conservatives were fighting a "proper campaign", and have even produced eight different leaflets so far. He also remarked several times during his brief visit that he was the first Prime Minister to put in a personal appearance in an English by-election campaign for more than 13 years.

What Mr Cameron did not point out was that the precedent he was referring to was Tony Blair's intervention in a by-election in Uxbridge in 1997. It was not a success. The Conservatives snatched their first by-election in eight years. Similarly, one wing of the Conservative party is silently hoping that Oldham East will give the embattled Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, his first election success of 2011.

In the May election, the Liberal Democrat candidate Elwyn Watkins came second, only 103 votes behind Labour. Given the humiliating way in which the incumbent Labour MP, Phil Woolas, was ejected from the Commons after a court ruled he had lied about Mr Watkins during the campaign, the Liberal Democrats ought to be strongly placed to win.

But what is bedevilling Mr Watkins is not his own record as a candidate, but that of Mr Clegg and other Liberal Democrat ministers. Labour's shadow Chancellor, Alan Johnson, called into the village of Shaw in the northern part of the constituency yesterday, and the first voter he encountered on Market Street was Mrs Aileen Kramer, who used to vote Liberal Democrat but has switched to Labour, disillusioned with the Lib Dems' record in government over tax, tuition fees and other issues. "I've always been Lib Dem, but I feel we've been sold out," she said. "I voted for them because I felt they stood for the things I believe in, but I think they have been traitors to themselves."

In Oakham and nearby Rochdale, the Lib Dems have a long-standing, solid electoral base inherited from the Liberal Party, but if disillusionment causes it to melt on Thursday, Mr Clegg will have an increasingly mutinous party.

Debbie Abrahams, the Labour candidate in Oldham East, has the look of a future MP. She is a public-health consultant and has lived just outside the constituency boundaries for 24 years. She is married to John Abrahams, a former captain of the Lancashire cricket club who now manages the England under-19 team.

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