Chief Political Correspondent
The Prime Minister yesterday lost a fiercely loyal backbencher and saw his majority cut to 10 with the death of Geoffrey Dickens, one of the most colourful Tory MPs in the Commons.
The majority will be further reduced with the by-election for his seat of Littleborough and Saddleworth on the Yorkshire moors, which the Tories are certain to lose. And they face defeat in Perth and Kinross next week.
Mr Dickens, 63, had insisted on turning up at the Commons for votes until near the end of his long battle with cancer, and he castigated the Conservative Euro-rebels with almost his last breath in the House.
A doughty champion of children and large dogs, his seat is seen as a lost cause for the Tories, who will be defending a majority of only 4,494, some of which would have been due to a large personal vote for Mr Dickens.
May's local election results for the Littleborough and Saddleworth constituency show the Liberal Democrats in the lead with 46 per cent, Labour second with 32 per cent, and the Tories trailing third with 21 per cent. The by-election is likely to be held in late July, to allow the Tories to have Parliament's summer recess to get over the defeat. The Liberal Democrats forced Labour into third place at the last general election but Labour now regards the seat as winnable, and will be fighting hard to avoid being squeezed by tactical voting.
The Liberal Democrats held the neighbouring seat of Rochdale in 1992 and have established a strong base in the moorland constituency to mount their by-election campaign, behind their general election candidate, Chris Davies. He is a former Liverpool city councillor, who also fought Mr Dickens for the seat in 1987.
The Prime Minister expressed his sadness at the death of Mr Dickens, and there were tributes from all sides.
He hit the headlines, admitting conducting an affair with a woman at "tea dances", but Mr Dickens was constantly quoted in the popular press, on every subject under Rupert Murdoch's Sun. Left-wing attempts to ban its Page Three girls met his withering rhetoric.
He was said to be the repository of every prejudice on the Tory backbenches, opposing liberalising the laws on homosexuality, and advocating castration for rapists. He enhanced his reputation for buffoonery when he told MPs: "I can do every woman in this country a favour."
He fought the Dangerous Dogs Act, telling the Commons that, as a former breeder and judge of great Danes, he could testify the "vast majority of big dog breeds are lovely in nature".
Mr Dickens once remarked that his favourite radio programme had been the Saturday children's radio show hosted by "Uncle Mac". He delighted MPs by repeating Uncle Mac's opening line in the Commons: "Hello children, everywhere...."
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