Tories feel chill in Tamworth

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Indy Politics

Chief Political Correspondent

Labour campaigners were forecasting a swing to Labour in double figures today to win the by-election in Staffordshire South-East and cut John Major's Commons' majority to a perilous single vote.

Labour needs a swing of 6.3 per cent to win the Tory seat in today's poll, which is taking place almost four years to the day since Mr Major was elected to office, against all the odds, on a late surge of Tory support.

The Tory candidate, Jimmy James, was yesterday putting in a last effort to win back the wavering Tory voters by pumping the flesh in Tamworth market, where a week ago Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, forecast that he would be the first beneficiary of the "feelgood factor".

Mr James was pinning his hopes on the late surge that carried Mr Major in. He was a party worker at two previous Tory by-election defeats - at Littleborough and Saddleworth and Dudley West - but said the mood was better this time.

"The atmosphere is totally different. There was a lot of bitterness at Dudley ... At the beginning of the campaign in Staffordshire South-East, people were saying we are not very happy with the Government's policy, and we are not sure how we are going to vote. More recently, they have been saying, `We think things are getting better; we're not entirely happy - but we will give you the benefit of the doubt'."

However, there was confusion in the Tory camp over possible excuses for the expected defeat. Mr James was hedging his bets by insisting that the seat, where the Tories are defending a majority of 7,192 after the death of former whip Sir David Lightbown, is, in his view, a Tory marginal. It is not Tory heartland, he said.

But Mr Clarke last week left no room for excuses tonight by saying that he only had to look at Tamworth to see it was the sort of seat which ought to vote Conservative.

Labour is keen to play up the importance of the result, saying if the party can win by a double-figure swing tonight, it is well on the way to victory in the general election.

8 Staffordshire South-East 1992 general election: Con 29,180; Lab 21,988; Lib Dem 5,540; SDP 895. Con majority 7,192. Electorate 70,199. Turnout 82.1 per cent.