Tory candidate says recovery is still fragile: Newbury by-election: Conservative sounds a more cautious note as his opponents mock economic policies

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JULIAN DAVIDSON, the Tory candidate in the Newbury by-election, appeared to falter over the main plank of the Conservatives' campaign yesterday as he accepted that economic recovery was 'fragile'.

The admission, made during questioning over Tuesday's Institute of Directors' attack on government economic policy, contrasts with his bolder 'green branch' of recovery assertions last week.

The business leaders' claim that the economy was recovering in spite of the Government, not because of it, was seized on by Charles Kennedy, president of the Liberal Democrats and the MP for Ross, Cromarty and Skye, who urged that John Major 'should not be let off the hook'.

Exchanges at the morning news conferences of Mr Davidson and his main opponent, the Liberal Democrat David Rendel, showed Mr Davidson the more defensive, a turn-around from the beginning of the week when the Government declared the recession officially over.

Mr Davidson said the institute was looking 'very much back', while his 'talking up Newbury' campaign was looking very much forward. 'The markets currently have confidence in the Government, thus allowing inflation rates and interest rates to stay down. The Newbury result will be part of that confidence,' he said.

But he agreed that economic improvement was 'fragile, quite clearly, because it's a very young recovery'.

Mr Kennedy said the Conservatives wanted voters on 6 May to forget the last 52 weeks and remember the 'huff and puff' of the last seven days.

'If one looks at the approach of the Tories since they've been in power - unemployment kept going up, so they changed the basis of calculating unemployment figures times after time; when inflation was a problem, Mr Lawson announced he was going to take the mortgage component out of the RPI,' he said.

'Doubtless, as this recovery takes hold and our level of national indebtedness and our balance of trade sinks even further, Norman Lamont will say in future the balance of trade will not include imports.'

Neither Mr Kennedy nor Mr Rendel minced words about eventually rejoining the exchange rate mechanism. It was not the ERM but government policies - joining at too high a level and rejecting revaluation - that had been shown to fail.

(Photograph omitted)