Parliament and Politics: Newbury By-Election: Tories and Lib Dems clash over strength of recovery: Rivals gather at car launch

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Indy Politics
A JOINT attack by Julian Davidson, Tory candidate in the Newbury by-election, and Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Employment, on David Rendel, the Liberal Democrat, for 'talking down' economic recovery, drew a counterblast yesterday from Paddy Ashdown against 'wildly talking it up' to win votes.

A 'green branch' rather than a mere 'green shoot' of recovery, according to Mr Davidson and Mrs Shephard, was dismissed as 'over-hype' by the Liberal Democrat leader.

While both sides cited evidence for their assertions, Russell Court, chairman of NIAF, a local car dealer, appeared evenly split between the two. 'We are finding it a little easier but like all economic things they take time to filter through,' he said.

Mr Court, who attracted the Tory, Liberal Democrat and Labour candidates to the local launch of the new Rover 600, added: 'I don't think we should say recessions are over until businesses can see sustainable profitability. We are a long way from that comfort though.'

The Liberal Democrats were much buoyed by their rally on Monday night, where Lord Jenkins, Liberal Democrat leader in the Lords, delighted his audience with government put-downs such as: 'It is now like piles of dirty snow at the end of a strenuous winter. The drama of the blizzard has gone but the detritus of policies remain.'

Mr Ashdown said yesterday that if there was a single slogan for the campaign it would be Newbury Can Speak for the Nation. Just as the Eastbourne by-election helped to see the end of Margaret Thatcher and Ribble Valley the poll tax, voting the Conservatives out at Newbury would see the end of VAT on fuel.

The mood of caution over the recovery in some quarters contrasted with a more up-beat response from Chris Gent, managing director of Vodaphone, Newbury's biggest employer. 'We are tremendously optimistic. It's been accelerating over the last nine months,' he said.

Mr Gent, a non-constituent, added that he would not vote Labour if he lived in Newbury. His remarks caused mild consternation. His questioners included Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, and Steve Billcliffe, Labour's by-election candidate.

Labour was to notch up a smallish victory later, amid the successive unveiling of the Rover cars at the Donnington Valley Hotel, as Mr Billcliffe's minder, Peter Mandelson, spied Mr Rendell.

'I'd like to meet Dave,' declared Mr Mandelson, the MP for Hartlepool and Labour's former campaigns and communications director, insisting that Matthew Taylor, MP, the Liberal Democrat campaign co-ordinator, had taken to calling Mr Rendell 'Dave' ever since Mr Mandelson had drawn attention to his Eton background on television.

'There's Dave. Hi, Dave,' he called. 'How's the campaign going, Dave?' Murmuring his replies, Mr Rendel edged away.