THE Liberal Democrats were last night poised to capture the Conservative stronghold of Newbury in today's by-election after a concentrated push to win over a crucial 3,000-or-so former Tory voters in the closing hours of campaigning.
With the Conservatives also furiously campaigning up to the last moment, the upshot of the Liberal Democrats' final efforts could be a slender majority for their candidate, David Rendel. But while easier for the Government to write off publicly, even that would send panic waves through Downing Street and open up a fresh period of intense instability for the Prime Minister.
According to Liberal Democrat calculations, the scale of the projected defeat of Julian Davidson, the Conservative candidate, was likely to turn heavily on how well the party could play for 2,900 votes from still uncommitted former Tories. But party sources said it would now be difficult for Mr Rendel to lose.
As the Liberal Democrat peer Shirley Williams energetically joined the last walkabout in Newbury, Sir Norman Fowler, Conservative Party chairman, refused to contemplate defeat in a statement at Mr Davidson's closing news conference.
Mr Davidson, who will do better in rural areas, said: 'We are not in the business of considering anything other than a win.'
Assuming a probable turn-out of 70 per cent, according to the Liberal Democrats - the Tories have put the figure as more like 60 to 65 per cent - a maximum of 56,000 electors attending the polling stations will be faced with a ballot paper 2ft long, containing a record 19 candidates. At Labour HQ yesterday there was private acceptance of the prospect of the party gaining as little as 5 per cent of the vote, with Steve Billcliffe, the candidate, hard pressed not to lose his deposit.
However, Peter Mandelson, Mr Billcliffe's minder and the MP for Hartlepool, insisted: 'Elsewhere in southern England we are the only viable alternative government. In other constituencies we are strong, we are second and not simply a party of passing protest.' Over the past week Mr Mandelson has lived up to his reputation as a smooth operator with his handling of the about-turn from Labour's earlier 'vote positively' campaign to the giving of a virtual green light to sympathisers to vote tactically for the Liberal Democrats.
The Conservative campaign, while professionally handled - albeit avoiding over-exposure of Mr Davidson to ordinary voters - has been more jerky. It scented victory at the end of the first week as it brought in Norman Lamont, the Cabinet minister most at risk in what is now increasingly seen as an inevitable summer reshuffle by John Major. But despite his upbeat tactic of 'talking up' Newbury and his 'green branches' of recovery, Mr Davidson, a Somerset county councillor, has increasingly been driven back to making non-committal replies to a range of questions on government policies. The strain showed in Tuesday's news conference as he stumbled over attempts to justify hitting the poor with the 1 per cent rise in National Insurance contributions in the Budget.
After an intensely serious, even grave, start the locally based Mr Rendel became visibly more relaxed over the three weeks of his campaign as he tackled issues from the economy and VAT on fuel to rail privatisation, over-development in greenfield areas, rural post offices and health issues. He has placed an 11-8 pounds 20 bet on his own victory.
The candidates: Julian Davidson (C), David Rendel (Lib Dem), Steve Billcliffe (Lab), Andrew Bannon (The Conservative Candidate), William Board (Maastricht Referendum for Britain), John Browne (Conservative Party Rebel), Dr Rory Day (People and Pensioners Party), Mladen Grbin (Defence of Children's Humanity - Bosnia), Michael Grenville (Natural Law Party), Robin Marlar (The Referendum Party), Stephen Martin (Commoners' Party), Anne Murphy (Communist Party of Great Britain), Alan Page (SDP), Colin Palmer (21st Century Party), Lindi St Clair (Corrective Party), Alan Sked (Anti-Federalist), Michael Stone (Give the Royal Billions to Schools), Lord David Sutch (Monster Raving Loony 30 Years Party), Jim Wallis (Green).
General election result: Judith Chaplin (C) 37,135; David Rendel (Lib Dem) 24,778; Richard Hall (Lab) 3,962; Jim Wallis (Green) 539. C maj 12,357.
Election excuses, page 26
Diary, page 27
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