Lib Dems find attack the best form of defence

'Someone has changed tactics and pressed the panic button'
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Indy Politics

Political Correspondent

Liberal Democrat tactics in the by-election campaign changed yesterday as the party launched a personal attack on Phil Woolas, the Labour candidate, in a clear acknowledgement that Labour is the real threat.

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, making his third campaign visit, insisted "We will concentrate our fire on the Tories" and described Labour as a "distraction".

But even as he spoke, party workers were delivering a leaflet accusing Mr Woolas of opposing Tony Blair, the Labour leader, on Clause IV and the trade union block vote. Mr Woolas's campaign manager, Peter Mandelson, the MP for Hartlepool, condemned the charges as "bare-faced lies" and Mr

Blair issued a statement saying: "I received strong support from Phil Woolas over the union change and Clause IV, and I hope the Liberal Democrats will apologise to him for intentionally trying to mislead the public."

The apparent shift in the focus of the Liberal Democrat campaign took place before the two opinion polls became known, reinforcing the perception of the by-election as a two-party battle.

Mr Mandelson claimed credit for forcing the change: "Someone has come in and changed tactics and pressed the panic button," he said. A spokesman for the Liberal Democrats denied that they had changed their strategy in a belated response to Labour's relentless personal attacks on their candidate, Chris Davies, portrayed as soft on drugs and a tax-raiser.

Mr Ashdown told a morning news conference before a walkabout in Shaw market that Labour's attacks on Mr Davies, which have dominated the campaign so far, were "a clear example of the sheer desperation - sometimes laughable desperation - of people who know they have no chance and are trying to break in."

At rival news conferences the Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates traded blows over Labour's plans for regional government. Mr Woolas insisted the main purpose of the plans was to "streamline" quangos and bureaucracy.

Mr Davies again showed himself uncertain, but perhaps more human than his fluent opponent, on tax questions. Asked if a regional parliament for the North-west would have tax raising powers, he said: "Yes, but I'm not a fiscal expert." Senior party sources later corrected him off the record, saying the Liberal Democrat plans would be "fiscally neutral" and there would be no added tax burden.

John Hudson, the Conservative candidate, yesterday dismissed the poll findings, saying he remained "confident of winning" because of his canvass returns. "At the last general election the polls said we'd lose. We are continuing to identify our support and persuade them to vote," he said.

On Wednesday, Mr Hudson delivered a surprise endorsement of the Labour candidate when they met pressing the flesh in the street, saying he thought Mr Woolas would win "one day - but not this constituency ... I'll still try to smile and be friendly for you. It's more than I can say for some of our opposition."