Tories launch Newbury defence: By-election set to coincide with county council elections on 6 May

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Indy Politics
THE NEWBURY by-election will be fought on 6 May, the same day as county council elections in England and Wales, posing a double test of John Major's standing and popularity.

Julian Davidson, the Conservative candidate who launches his campaign tomorrow, said that the timing would allow both local and national issues to be addressed. But the contest coincides with rock-bottom ratings for the Government in the opinion polls and a Labour lead of 18.5 per cent.

David Rendel, the Liberal Democrat who has fought the seat twice before, needs a 9.4 per cent swing to overturn the 12,357 majority won in April 1992 by Judith Chaplin, John Major's former political adviser, who died in February.

Mr Davidson, 30, a Somerset county councillor, is an advertising consultant turned virtual full-time local politician. His performance in Paddy Ashdown's Yeovil seat in 1992 saw the Tory vote slump. But he proved the popular choice of West Berkshire Tories, who defied Conservative Central Office - by preferring him to John Maples, a former minister.

Steve Billcliffe, the candidate for Labour - which polled just 6 per cent in 1992 - is a marketing manager with the trade union bank Unity Trust and a long-standing Newbury resident. His campaign, to be launched on Monday, will be handled by Peter Mandelson, the MP for Hartlepool and Labour's former campaigns and communications director.

With his Eton, Oxford and rowing-blue background, Mr Rendel, a management consultant who gave up work to concentrate on chairing Newbury District Council's recreation committee, will also play up strong local connections.

The 81,000-plus constituency - including Newbury town and the Lambourn horse-racing centre - has had two sweeteners from the Tories: changes to VAT on bloodstock and the go-ahead for the A34 by-pass. But Mr Rendel claimed yesterday that it had suffered the country's third largest rise in unemployment in the last five years, and lacked the cash for a new hospital and more police officers.

Other prospective candidates are Jim Wallis (Green), Alan Sked (Anti-Federalist), William Board (Maastricht Referendum for Britain), Anne Murphy (Communist Party of Great Britain), Lord David Sutch, Monster Raving Loony Party, Colin Palmer, 21st Century Party.