Labour braced for loss of at least one seat

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair faces losing two safe Labour seats in by-elections today after the Liberal Democrats said there would be a photo-finish in Leicester South, and a strong anti-war vote in Birmingham Hodge Hill.

Tony Blair faces losing two safe Labour seats in by-elections today after the Liberal Democrats said there would be a photo-finish in Leicester South, and a strong anti-war vote in Birmingham Hodge Hill.

The polls, seen by many as a referendum on Mr Blair's leadership, are expected to see the Labour vote collapse in protest at the Government's decision to go to war in Iraq.

As all three parties prepared a final push to win voters, Labour and the Liberal Democrats were predicting that the results would be extremely close. In Leicester South, where the Liberal Democrats are trying to overturn a 13,000 Labour majority, a "photo finish" between the Liberal Democrats and Labour was being forecast.

The Liberal Democrats believe they can gain the seat if Tory voters, and those supporting the anti-war coalition Respect, back them. But Labour said it was "quietly confident" of victory in both constituencies. In Birmingham Hodge Hill and Leicester South, the publication of the Butler report, and the fresh focus on the Iraq war it brings, will harm Labour's chances.

Voters in Leicester South this morning woke up to leaflets telling them a Tory vote would let Labour back in. They were being urged to punish the Prime Minister for invading Iraq by voting Liberal Democrat.

But Labour is banking on holding on to at least one constituency with a reduced majority to save face. One minister said: "We cannot afford to lose two of them but we know there is a big anti-Iraq vote."

The result in Leicester South was last night looking closer than in Birmingham Hodge Hill, where the Liberal Democrats had only 2,000 votes at the last election. "It will be very close between us and Labour and I am convinced we can win," Lord Rennard, the Liberal Democrats' chief executive, said.

Yesterday the Tories were privately admitting they had no hope of gaining the seat but they are hoping to avoid a meltdown that will reflect badly on Michael Howard's leadership. Chris Heaton-Harris, the Conservative candidate, has marked himself out as a Tory to watch after an energetic and original campaign. But he has little hope of winning.

"This has been very important for us because it is the first by-election under Michael [Howard] and since the debacle of Brent East, in which the party can show that the Conservatives can fight together," a Tory spokesman said.

Yesterday Mr Howard's wife Sandra, a former model, was in the constituency to shake hands and charm potential voters along with William Hague, the former Tory leader, and Liam Fox, the party's co-chairman.

In a close-fought and acrimonious campaign, all parties are accusing their opponents of dirty tricks. Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, is expected to lodge a formal complaint with Labour over its behaviour in both constituencies.

Earlier this week Labour supporters shouted abuse at Mr Kennedy on a visit to Birmingham Hodge Hill and reportedly rocked his car. The Liberal Democrat candidate in Birmingham, Nicola Davies, has also been jostled and harangued by Labour activists.

But Labour's campaign has been helped by having two experienced candidates, including Sir Peter Soulsby, a former Leicester City Council leader, and Liam Byrne, an ally of Tony Blair who won endorsements from senior businessmen for the Prime Minister after he came to office in 1997. Gordon Brown yesterday paid an 11th-hour visit to the constituency.

"It's going to be close," a Labour spokesman said. "We are quietly confident. We don't expect a huge majority but the feedback has been good."

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