Kennedy orders final push in crucial Cheadle contest

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Indy Politics

The Liberal Democrats are defending Cheadle - the Tories' top target seat at the general election - after the death from cancer of its MP, Patsy Calton, shortly after the election.

Mr Kennedy has ordered all his MPs to travel from London to Cheadle today in a final anxious push to hold the Cheshire seat. He relocated his weekly parliamentary party meeting from London to the town in Greater Manchester so that he and Liberal Democrat MPs can spend the afternoon knocking on doors in the quest for the few hundred votes that could win or lose them the by-election.

Mr Kennedy, who has visited the constituency a number of times, acknowledges that the result is "very important" for morale in his party. In an interview with The Independent, Mr Kennedy, who has had to confront murmurs about his leadership in recent weeks, said that if the Liberal Democrats lose, "an awful lot of things would be read into it.There would be a whole lot of interpretation that bears no relationship to what is happening in Cheadle whatsoever."

Mr Kennedy said retaining the seat, won by his party by 4,000 votes in May, was "important for morale".

"Nobody wanted this by-election, given the circumstances that have given rise to it. But having said that, we are where we are, and it is very important that we maintain the complement of seats that we gained just a few weeks ago."

The Liberal Democrat leader said the result "will turn on things like the level of turnout, the extent to which the various parties get their people coming to the polls".

Losing Cheadle would be a blow to the party's fearsome reputation for by-election victories. With the poll looming tomorrow, Liberal Democrat leaflets are claiming that the election is a two-horse race between them and the Conservatives. It is a claim well rehearsed by the Liberal Democrats in other by-elections. But in this fight it is absolutely true.

The Tories have fought an energetic campaign, hitting the phones in London in an effort to win over local people. They are trying to win back the seat for the former MP Stephen Day, who lost Cheadle to the Liberal Democrats in 2001 by only 33 votes. Busloads of MPs, including William Hague, Liam Fox and Michael Howard, have visited the constituency, while Tory leaflets tear into the reputation of Mark Hunter, the Liberal Democrat candidate who is the leader of Stockport council. One leaflet, entitled "Shame on you Mr Hunter", highlights the fact that the Liberal Democrat candidate lives a few miles away in the neighbouring constituency.

Tory posters are free from party branding and include the slogan "living here" - a gibe at Mr Hunter, who complained: "The Conservatives have run a nasty and personal campaign."

The gloves are off following the death of Ms Calton, who fought the general election courageously from her hospital bed and died shortly after taking the oath in the House of Commons.

A Conservative spokesman said: "We feel it is right to discuss these issues that relate to his leadership of Stockport council."

The Conservatives have also played down Tory branding promoting their candidate, who represented Cheadle as its MP for 14 years, as a local man.

Lord Rennard, the Liberal Democrat chief executive, a veteran of more than 20 years' campaigning, said: "It is the most negative and personally abusive by-election battle I think the Tories have ever fought."

The outcome may turn on how Labour supporters vote. The Liberal Democrats are desperate to win over Cheadle's 9 per cent of Labour supporters to stop them allowing the Tories in through the back door.

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