Gloves are off and the punching is hard

By-election campaign: Fight for Tories' Lancashire seat now said to be one of the most aggressive in recent years
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Indy Politics

Political Correspondent

"On the matter of drugs, I don't know the answer." That was Chris Davies, the Liberal Democrats' Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election candidate, digging himself into another hole last Friday night, according to Labour campaigners for the 27 July contest.

Mr Davies's reply to a question at a residents' association meeting in the Pennine constituency was entirely in line with his much-repeated call for a Royal Commission to examine drugs and drug-related crime, the Liberal Democrat camp insisted yesterday.

To Labour's campaign for candidate Phil Woolas, conducted under the vigilant eye and considerable media skills of Peter Mandelson MP, the party's former image-maker, it was yet another bullet to fire in what the Lib Dems describe as one of the most aggressively fought by-elections in recent memory.

Such a gloves-off campaign was inevitable in a by-election "New" Labour would love to win, despite traditionally coming third in the seat formerly held by the late Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens. It must achieve a decent second place to avoid serious embarrassment for Tony Blair, thus Labour's latest leaflet includes 18 disparaging references to Mr Davies - also under fire for past declarations about "hefty" tax rises and "independence" for the North-west - outnumbering positive mentions of the party leader. Last week, a hurriedly produced leaflet proclaimed: "By-election latest; Lib Dems drop candidate after drugs vote." The reverse side related the dropping of a candidate in Winchester, after he backed last year's Liberal Democrat conference vote supporting decriminalisation of the "use and possession" of cannabis.

Mr Davies is on record as telling the Oldham Advertiser: "A balance has to be struck between the desirability of reducing the use of all types of soft drugs while maintaining the freedom for individuals to do what they want to their own bodies as long as it affects no one else."

He has since insisted that he was opposed to the decriminalisation of soft drugs and would never have voted for the conference motion had the platform not inserted an amendment calling for a Royal Commission.

The Liberal Democrats insist the upshot is a no-score draw. According to a party worker, drugs has only featured in one of 300 letters to Mr Davies.