Liberal Democrats accused of 'dirty tricks' campaign to unseat Howard

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Indy Politics

The Liberal Democrats have been accused of using dirty tricks by trying to persuade Michael Howard's Labour opponent in his Kent constituency to defect.

The Liberal Democrats have been accused of using dirty tricks by trying to persuade Michael Howard's Labour opponent in his Kent constituency to defect.

Maureen Tomison said was approached by a senior member of the Liberal Democrats offering her a one-to-one meeting with Charles Kennedy if she switched her allegiance to the Liberal Democrats before 5 May.

She said she was told that if she defected she would succeed in ousting the Tory leader, who is defending a majority of 5,907 in Folkestone and Hythe, with the Liberal Democrats his nearest rival.

Ms Tomison said she felt "insulted" by the invitation and accused the Liberal Democrats of "dirty tricks".

The approach was made by John Stevens, a former Tory MEP and now a senior Liberal Democrat. Mr Stevens is a major donor to the Liberal Democrats and was a candidate for the party at the last European election. His role in the current election campaign is to promote Mr Kennedy in the foreign press.

Ms Tomison, a former political journalist and Conservative supporter, claimed she had been bombarded with phone calls. She said she was extremely surprised by the attempt to persuade her to defect, adding that she had "always liked" Mr Kennedy. "He [Mr Stevens] said that Charles Kennedy would see me and they invited me to stand down at the last minute," she said. "He said, 'Charles Kennedy will see you; he wants you to leave the Labour Party. In that way we will get rid of Michael Howard'." She added: "It's very dirty. It's very nasty."

Mr Stevens said he made a number of telephone calls to Ms Tomison asking her publicly to ditch Labour during the campaign but she refused to meet him.

"I said you ought to join the Liberal Democrats. I said she would be able to have a word with Charles. I said if she wanted to meet Charles Kennedy that could be arranged," he said. "I said she ought to be with us particularly in that seat. Obviously if she was to come in ... that would be rather good news."

Mr Stevens, who is an ardent pro-European and believes the Conservative Party is violently Eurosceptic said: "The best thing she could do for Europe is do what I suggested. The task in British politics is removing the xenophobic, reactionary element of the Tory party."

The Liberal Democrats distanced themselves yesterday from the approach and said Mr Kennedy had absolutely no knowledge of it. The party said Mr Stevens' approach was a freelance operation.

"There has been no official sanction" said a party spokesman.

The Liberal Democrats are optimistic about unseating Mr Howard and have made his Kent seat a top target. But they are relying on squeezing the 9,000 Labour voters to seize the constituency.

The Liberal Democrats got a major boost on the first day of the election campaign with the defection of Stephen Wilkinson, the Labour candidate in Ribble Valley.

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