'Hard graft' leads Lib Dems to urban victory over Blair labour

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Indy Politics

The Liberal Democrats added a string of further gains from Labour to their tally as the night went on.

They won Leeds North West, Rochdale and Inverness and saw big swings in Oxford East and Nottingham East. They snatched Ceredigion from the Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru, but they lost as expected their recent by-election gain of Leicester South to Labour. There were cries of dismay as Guildford fell to the Tories. The party also failed in its "decapitation strategy", which it hoped would deliver them the heads of top Tories including Michael Howard, David Davis and Theresa May.

The party advanced in seats such as a Manchester Withington ­ regarded as a safe Labour seat ­ Cardiff Central and Hornsey and Wood Green, held until last night by the former Labour minister Barbara Roche, and Cambridge.

They were also confident of snatching Bristol West from Labour, outstripping even the most optimistic of Liberal Democrat campaigners' expectations. But the party suffered a devastating setback when it lost its seat in Newbury to the Tories.

By midnight it was clear they had gained East Dunbartonshire and were delivering a body blow to Labour in core seats.

At the Commonwealth Club in central London, Brian Sedgemore looked delighted as he absorbed the scale of the gains. The former Labour MP, who defected to the Liberal Democrats at the height of the campaign over Tony Blair's support for the Iraq war, looked vindicated as he watched his adopted party defying the exit polls and punishing Tony Blair for his support for President Bush.

"It's absolutely terrific. This is hitting the core Labour vote," he said. "It's happening largely over Iraq and the spin off issues of trust. People do not like being deceived," he said.

The Liberal Democrat election chief, Lord Rennard, who was plugged into developments on the ground through an earpiece, looked quietly optimistic as the results from Labour seats came in. Just before midnight, the first results pinged into Lord Rennards' left ear. The news was they had held Cheadle, the most marginal seat in the country where the Liberal Democrats had won by only 33 votes in 2001, and Portsmouth South ­ a Tory target.

Lord Rennard, known to underplay his party's showing, had a wry smile on his face as the Labour results came in.

"If we increase our seats and our share of the vote that is a good result for us," he said.

"We are the only party that can claim to represent every part of Britain ­ rural, urban and suburban and the gains we are making show we are real contenders in Labour heartlands," he said.

The party's most marginal seat, Cheadle, was held after a concerted Liberal Democrat effort and there were cheers when the result was declared. There were also cheers at the Liberal Democrat election night party when Sir Menzies Campbell, the party's deputy leader, boosted his majority in Fife North East. The party held Norfolk North, despite an onslaught from the Tory contender Iain Dale.

By 1am the news on the ground was that the party had also consolidated Brent East, the sight of a spectacular by-election gain in 2003 from Labour. Sarah Teather, fought off a Labour bid to win back the seat defying the pundits who predicted she had little hope of clinging on.

There were cheers from the party faithful with news of an 11 per cent swing to the Liberal Democrats in Newcastle.

Early in the evening there were collective groans as the exit poll suggested Liberal Democrats would only gain 2 seats. "It can't be right," shrieked one election worker. "The figures don't reflect what's going on on the ground."

Peers, party workers and journalists stood glued to the television screen as results poured in. By midnight the minimalist dining club, more used to entertaining Indian and African diplomats than British psephologists, was heaving with the noisy Liberal Democrat faithful.

Girls in party frocks mingled with exhausted press officers who had been working 17-hour days in the election build-up.

But by 11pm Lord Dholakia, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords, predicted the party would send a powerful message to the other parties that negative campaigning did not win voters. "We have fought a positive campaign and there is a message for Tony Blair and Michael Howard that to stir up issues like asylum, civil liberties and immigration because the British public at the end of the day is fair and just."

Last night it appeared that the party's "decapitation strategy" to topple key members of the shadow Cabinet had failed. Tory family spokesperson Theresa May increased her majority by almost 3,000 votes in Maidenhead and it looked as if shadow Home Secretary David Davis had also kept his seat in Haltemprice and Howden.

Hornsey and Wood Green Former minister beaten

The Liberal Democrats were celebrating a spectacular coup in the former Labour stronghold of Hornsey and Wood Green in north London where the party ousted the former Cabinet Office minister Barbara Roche with a swing of nearly 15 per cent.

Lynne Featherstone, a businesswoman, who is a councillor in Haringey and a member of the London Assembly, made the gain, replacing Ms Roche's majority of 10, 614 with a Liberal Democrat majority of 2,395.

The win was a significant advance in a seat which was not regarded as a top Liberal Democrat target, even though the party has dominated local politics.

Liberal Democrats became increasingly confident of the chance of victory against Ms Roche towards the end of the campaign as the strength of anti-Blair sentiment began to become clear.

Ms Featherstone is said to have run an aggressive campaign against the hardworking Ms Roche, who maintained her profile even after she was sacked by Mr Blair.

Ms Roche, who was first elected to Parliament in 1992, rose through the ranks from Financial Secretary to the Treasury to Immigration minister and then Cabinet Office minister after 2001.

Ben Russell