All the indications point to the Government wanting to delay the contest until 9 June, the date of the European Parliament elections, to minimise political fall-out from the Tories' expected drubbing.
For the Liberal Democrats, the prime date would be 5 May. It would enable them to consolidate expected local council gains that day, particularly in the South-west, in the run-up to the European Parliament contests.
The rule that there must be three working weeks between calling an election and polling means that for the by-election to occur on 5 May, the Government must move the writ by Thursday. It has given no sign that it will do so.
The Liberal Democrats are considering invoking the convention recommended by a 1973 Speaker's conference on electoral law that writs for by- elections should be moved within three months of a vacancy occurring. In this case the Tory MP, Stephen Milligan, died on 7 February. The recommendation followed Liberal complaints that the 1973 Berwick-upon-Tweed by- election, which saw Alan Beith elected, had been unjustly delayed for political reasons.
While it gives the Government until 9 May to move the writ, delaying it further to ensure a 9 June contest would break the rule and risk censure from the Speaker, the Liberal Democrats argued yesterday. They are are considering seeking to move the writ for 5 May themselves tomorrow, triggering a Commons debate.
While the Government would be guaranteed to win the vote, particularly as Labour is content to stand on the sidelines, that would be a high- risk strategy because a further writ could not then be moved until after this autumn's Queen's Speech.
An alternative option is for the Government to put down an amendment altering the date to 9 June. In this case, the two-week Whitsun recess, which conveniently begins as the three-week period from 9 May expires, could come to the rescue.
1992 election: S Milligan (Con) 38,998 (51.3 per cent); D Chidgey (LD) 21,296 (28.0); Ms J Sugrue (Lab) 15,768 (20.7). Con maj 17,702. Electorate 91,376. Turn-out 82.9 per cent.