Every Tory MP ordered to join 'three-way' campaign

Leicester South
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In a room above a clothes shop for teenage girls in Leicester, David Maclean, the Tory chief whip, is operating his mobile shredder. He is demolishing confidential lists of MPs "persuaded" to travel from London to help in the by-election in Leicester South.

"We have got so many MPs in Leicester it's best to co-ordinate a whip's operation up here. There's no threat [to MPs]. But my being here does reinforce the point that it is productive for them to be in Leicester," he says.

Michael Howard, the Tory leader, has ordered each Tory MP to spend at least 10 hours campaigning in the by-election caused by the death of the Labour MP Jim Marshall. The Tories are doing everything they can to avoid a repeat of the Brent East by-election in September last year, where their third place contributed to Iain Duncan Smith's downfall.

The Tories claimed yesterday it was a three-way fight but the Liberal Democrats, who came third in Leicester South at the last general election, appear to be the most credible challengers to Labour. They are the odds-on favourites, according to the bookies.

Charles Kennedy, who visited the constituency yesterday, is hoping to pull off a repeat of his party's by-election victory in Brent. On the streets of Leicester, which like Brent East has a large ethnic minority population, the mention of Iraq provokes anger and dissent.

Liberal Democrat leaflets feature pictures of Tony Blair and President George Bush smiling and ask voters "to send a message to Tony Blair that the war was wrong" by voting for them.

Labour may have an able and principled candidate in Sir Peter Soulsby, the former council chairman, but the party's main obstacle is the Prime Minister's record. Tellingly, no Labour leaflets have a picture of Tony Blair or mention the liberation of Iraq.

Ironically, it is Labour's arch enemies who could rescue them. If the Conservatives succeed in increasing their vote, the Liberal Democrats could be deprived of victory. It is not surprising then that Labour's literature stops short of attacking the Tories, focusing its fire on the Liberal Democrats.

The veteran by-election campaigner Phil Woolas, the Deputy Leader of the Commons, has been drafted to inject some mettle into Labour's campaign and he is unabashed that the "gloves are off".

Equipped with a giant pair of scissors advertising "cuts" introduced by the Liberal Democrat-run council, Mr Woolas insists that the Labour majority of 13,000 is holding up.

"Our vote is consolidating the more we go on the attack," he says. "We are neutralising the war issue."