Peers court Dorset voters: Liberal Democrats target pensioners

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THE LIBERAL Democrats told voters in the Christchurch by-election yesterday that they may be able to reverse the decision to impose VAT on domestic fuel bills by defeating the Conservatives in the poll on 29 July.

The Commons vote increased the difficulties of the Tories in holding the seat. Rob Hayward, the Tory candidate, insisted he could not say how he would vote until he had seen the complete package.

Ministers are privately discounting the impact of a Tory defeat, but Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said the by-election could help force a government U-turn.

Diana Maddock, the Liberal Democrat candidate, said: 'While Newbury changed the Chancellor, a victory for the Liberal Democrats in Christchurch can bring a change of policy in the November budget.'

That is proving a potent weapon in winning the support of pensioners, who account for 34 per cent of the electorate. The Tories have accused the Liberal Democrats of scare- mongering over prescription charges for the elderly and children, and hotel charges in NHS hospitals, which the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, has ruled out.

Mr Ashdown's party has had to start virtually from scratch in the constituency. It is bringing in hundreds of volunteers and deploying peers' social cachet to catch wavering Tories. Voters will be invited to take tea with a peer at the home of a supporter.

The Tories are likely to cry 'foul' over that too. Mr Hayward has been having 'at homes' for some weeks and yesterday invited his own peer, Lord Archer, to tea.

Mr Hayward fielded complaints from a dozen people, mostly pensioners, in the front room of a bungalow in Ebor Close. He was stumped by Mary Croxon, 85, who wanted to know why the water for her budgerigar, Beauty, left a black ring. 'I'm not a water specialist. I don't know,' he said, in the day's most honest answer.

John Prescott, Labour spokesman on transport, who committed the sin of honesty by admitting that his party had no chance of winning, yesterday threw his weight behind the Labour candidate, Nigel Lickley, with an attack on the Liberal Democrats.

He said that if they had supported Labour in a key Maastricht vote, he said, they would have helped to sweep the Government out of office.

'Then the Government wouldn't be having by-elections against them. We could be having by-elections about the Labour government . . . '

1992 election: R Adley (Con) 36,627 (63.5 per cent); D Bussey (Lib Dem) 13,612 (23.6); A Lloyd (Lab) 6,997 (12.1); J Barratt (Nat Law) 243 (0.4); A Wareham (Raving) 175 (0.3). Con maj 23,015. Electorate 71,469. Turn-out 80.9 per cent.