Lib Dem councillor is candidate for rivals

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The Liberal Democrats' campaign to win the Romsey by-election was plunged into controversy last night after it emerged that the UK Independence Party candidate was still a Lib Dem councillor.

Labour accused Charles Kennedy of "lacking leadership" when it became clear that Garry Rankin-Moore had been allowed to remain a member of the Lib Dem group on a Hampshire council.

Mr Rankin-Moore, the UKIP candidate in next month's by-election, has quit the national Liberal Democrats to contest the poll but has not resigned from the party group on Test Valley borough council.

The councillor resigned from the national party because of its pro-European stance, yet he has claimed he has no quarrel with his local Liberal Democrat colleagues.

The Liberal Democrats are hoping for a stunning by-election victory in Romsey on 4 May.

Their candidate, Sandra Gidley, is bidding to overturn the Tory 8,500 majority.

But Mr Rankin-Moore has derided the Liberal Democrat claim that the contest is a two-horse race between themselves and the Conservatives. "It's the biggest work of fiction since Tony Blair said he was a patriot," he said.

Mark Cooper, the leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Test Valley council, has failed to take action against the UKIP candidate, claiming that his anti-European views have been known for a long time.

Mr Cooper has admitted that Mr Rankin-Moore has not resigned from the group and that his position will be reviewed later this month.

But Hilary Armstrong, the local-government minister, said that it was a "farce" that a Liberal Democrat councillor could be allowed to stand against a Liberal Democrat in a by-election.

"When is a Liberal Democrat not a Liberal Democrat? When they are a UKIP candidate. It's like some bizarre joke," Ms Armstrong said.

"It shows that the Liberal Democrats have no leadership at all, and is a perfect example of the mess of their local parties and the inability of the party nationally to deal with it.

"This is a man who sits on the same council group as the Liberal Democrats and is now standing for a party with diametrically opposed views on Europe. Charles Kennedy's failure to act or to give advice to the local party proves his lack of leadership."

A Liberal Democrat spokesman said that the party's headquarters in Cowley Street, Westminster, could not intervene in the affair and was bound by law not to dictate to the council group.

"It is a matter for the council group to sort out. It is up to the council group to decide who is on their group," he said.

A spokeswoman for the party's by-election campaign agreed, pointing out that a meeting of the Test Valley Lib Dem group was due this week to discuss the matter. "We are waiting for that meeting. We are following standard procedures. There are ways of doing things," she said.