Lib Dems overturn huge majority to beat Labour in by-election

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The Liberal Democrats pulled off a sensational by-election coup early this morning, on Gordon Brown's doorstep. Their candidate, Willie Rennie, overturned an 11,562 Labour majority to seize the Dunfermline and West Fife constituency with a majority approaching 2,000 votes, pushing the total of Liberal Democrat MPs to 63, the highest since the 1930s.

The result will be a major confidence booster for the Liberal Democrats, and particularly for whoever emerges as their new leader next month. It suggests that the damage they have suffered since the resignation of Charles Kennedy is a lot less serious than opinion polls indicated.

Mr Rennie polled 12,391 votes, an increase of 15.7 per cent since the election in May 2005, while Labour's Catherine Stilher polled 10,591 votes, a drop of 16.8 per cent, when the late Rachel Squire won the seat for Labour with an overwhelming majority.

The Liberal Democrat winner had local connections. Mr Rennie grew up in the village of Strathmiglo, in the constituency. His family ran the village shop there.

Ms Stihler's campaign started badly, because of complaints that she should have resigned from her seat in the European Parliament, which she entered in 1999, aged 25, as the youngest MEP.

The result is a personal embarrassment for Gordon Brown, who has his family home in a seat now represented by a Liberal Democrat. His own constituency, Dunfermline West, is next door.

The only comfort Labour can draw from the result is the poor showing by the Conservatives, in the first big electoral test since David Cameron became leader. Tory candidate Carrie Ruxton received 2,702 votes as Douglas Chapman of the Scottish National Party received 7,261 votes.

Rumours that Labour might be in difficulty spread a week ago, when the government was defeated in the Commons over the Religious Hatred Bill. About a dozen Labour MPs had missed the vote because they were in Dunfermline, trying to firm up support for Mrs Stihler.

Labour activists will now have to ponder what will happen in the May council elections. A bad result is likely to increase the mood of rebelliousness among Labour MPs who are impatient for Tony Blair to resign quickly and hand over to Mr Brown.

Final count

Willie Rennie LIB DEM: 12,391 +15.7%

Catherine Stihler LAB: 10,591 -16.8%

Douglas Chapman SNP: 7,261 +2.2%

Carrie Ruxton CON: 2,702 -2.5%