Lib Dems hail election boost

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Liberal Democrat hopes of a shock victory in next month's by-election at Romsey were boosted yesterday after the party secured a huge swing in a local council poll in the Hampshire constituency.

A by-election in Test Valley borough's Harefield ward saw a swing of 17.1 per cent from Tories to the Liberals, with Labour squeezed into a distant third place. The shift, which was more than double that needed to take the Romsey parliamentary seat, was seized on by Liberal Democrats as evidence they were making inroads.

The Conservatives won the council seat, but their lead was cut much more heavily than expected. They gained 54 per cent of the vote, the Liberal Democrats 43 per cent and Labour just 2.1 per cent.

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said that the result was proof that his candidate, Sandra Gidley, had a real chance of winning the byelection on 4 May. "It shows she can win the parliamentary seat and that Labour are clearly out of the race. People have no confidence in William Hague's Conservatives to do anything to improve education or local health services," he said. "They are dissatisfied with the Government's approach to pensioners and post offices. The Liberal Democrat campaign is gaining momentum."

The Tory MP Michael Colvin, whose death in a fire at his home in February caused the byelection, had an 8,585 majority over Liberal Democrats at the 1997 general election. Romsey is one of the safest Tory seats in the country and the party said yesterday that its candidate, Tim Palmer, was still "comfortably" on course for victory.