New by-election challenge adds to Tory worries: Death of Robert Adley makes Conservative majority of 23,000 a target for Lib Dems

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JOHN MAJOR was yesterday facing another potentially damaging by-election challenge from the Liberal Democrats following the death of Robert Adley, the Conservative MP for Christchurch, in Dorset.

The Tories will be defending a 23,015 majority, making it their 17th safest seat. But after the Liberal Democrats' victory in the Newbury by-election with a swing of 28 per cent, it is within their grasp. They need a swing of 20 per cent to take the seat and reduce the Government's majority to 17.

Ministers were predicting last night there would be no early by-election. It may be delayed until July or after the summer recess in October, to give more time for economic recovery. 'The Liberal Democrats are on a roll after Newbury,' one minister said. 'An early election would be handing it to them.'

Holding the seat would help to shore up sagging Tory morale before a summer offensive led by a Cabinet reshuffle. Tory MPs in the South-west are so alarmed at the threat from the Liberal Democrats that they have called a meeting at Westminster next week to launch a counter-attack.

Last week's elections put the Liberal Democrats within one seat of taking overall control of Dorset County Council for the first time in over 100 years. The Liberal Democrats, who won 38 seats (up 17) compared with the Tories' 29 (down 12), are mounting a legal challenge over an unperforated ballot paper in one seat where they were within one vote of a dead heat.

There was no change in the county seats in the constituency - the Tories held their eight seats, the Liberal Democrats two with one Independent. But the Tory majorities were reduced.

Mr Adley was a popular MP, a steam railways enthusiast and a thorn in the side of the Government over the privatisation of British Rail. He was the chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Transport, which published a damning report the day after he suffered the heart attack from which he died.

The MP for the seat since 1974, when it was linked with Lymington, Mr Adley, 58, slightly increased his majority and his number of votes at the last election, suggesting he carried a personal vote which could prove vulnerable.

David Fox, Western counties co-ordinator for the Liberal Democrats, said: 'It may be the Conservatives will opt for a local candidate. It is that sort of constituency party.

'They haven't been used to having a hard fight. We didn't do well at the last election but we didn't work at it. This time we will. I think it is winnable.'

The Liberal Democrats do not yet have an office in the town, but they estimate they have 1,000 supporters within a half-hour drive of Christchurch, and they will be campaigning hard in the coming weeks.

In the county elections, the Liberal Democrats gained support. The Tories had 50.1 per cent (51.1 per cent in 1989); Liberals 34 per cent (27); and Labour 7.2 per cent (13.5).

The Tories have a difficult choice of candidate. Being close to his old Plymouth seat, there is certain to be speculation about Alan Clark, the controversial former defence minister.

1992 General Election result: R J Adley (Con) 36,627 (63.5 per cent); Rev D Bussey (LD) 13,612 (23.6), A Lloyd (Lab) 6,997 (12.1), J Barratt (NLP) 243 (0.4), A Wareham (CRA - Chauvinist Raving Alliance) 175 (0.3). Conservative majority: 23,015.

Obituary, page 22