The Christchburch By-Election: Tories target Fowler as scapegoat for defeat: Victorious Liberal Democrats say Conservative drubbing was a 'shout of rage' as calls for U-turn on VAT on fuel are rejected by Major

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CONSERVATIVE MPs were gunning yesterday for Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman, as the scapegoat for the defeat at Christchurch on Thursday, the most disastrous at any by-election since the Second World War.

Appearing to anticipate the attack, Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, said that in spite of the temptation to indulge in recrimination, 'it would be both a shame and an error to succumb to the lure of looking for scapegoats; be they policies, personalities or presentation'.

As Tory backbenchers from across the party were targeting Sir Norman, it was conceded by some critics that the 'real' target was the Prime Minister; it was only a matter of time before they turned their fire on him, and it would take only 34 MPs to trigger a leadership election in the autumn.

John Major was standing firm yesterday, insisting that he would not reverse plans to impose value-added tax on domestic fuel bills. With many ministerial colleagues reduced to a grim public silence, the Prime Minister said: 'No, no, I'm not going to reconsider policy on VAT on fuel.

'I spoke a moment ago about the need to get the country's finances in order. That cannot be done without difficult decisions.'

That determination was immediately pounced upon by Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, whose by-election candidate had just scored a stupendous 35 per cent swing in one of the country's most blue-chip Tory constituencies. 'There's been a shout of rage from Christchurch, speaking on behalf of the whole nation,' he said.

'If the Prime Minister ignores that, or treats it with contempt or complacency, which is what he now seems to be doing, he will suffer. But the country will suffer most.'

The most breathtaking attack on the party chairman was delivered by William Powell, MP for Corby - the party's ninth most marginal seat with a majority of 342 at the last election. 'There's absolutely no doubt at all,' he told BBC Radio, 'wherever I go, Conservative voters are simply appalled by some of the things Sir Norman Fowler says. If you say incredible things, then people will not pay any attention to you and your own position is bound to be discredited.'

Earlier Sir Norman told GMTV that no one was complacent. 'The whole thing about politics is to try to get over the policies that you are carrying out.'

Later, he told ITN: 'I think that there has been a feeling by the public that we have become remote as a government, perhaps as a party as well.

'But I think what we need to do is to get our message over more directly. That means not just the party, but also ministers getting out into the country, explaining our policies directly, and of course developing the policies which the public feel most strongly on, like law and order.'

Diana Maddock, the new MP, said people had voted for her because of their 'total disillusionment' with the Conservatives, adding: 'The Government is drifting rudderless and totally out of touch.'

Labour, which lost its by-election deposit as the protest vote turned to the more potent Liberal Democrat threat, opens a summer campaign on VAT today. John Smith, the Labour leader, said the result was 'a devastating rejection of John Major and his government - and a crushing condemnation of Tory broken promises on VAT'.

The Conservative backbencher Teresa Gorman, of Billericay, told ITN that if Mr Major did not reverse the VAT decision, 'then he will be committing political suicide'.

Earlier, she told BBC Radio's Today programme: 'Politics is just like a business. You have a range of products - the policies - and if the people say they don't like what you're offering and they slam the door in your face, you're an idiot if you don't change. And the Prime Minister has the power to do that.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- VOTING RESULTS ----------------------------------------------------------------- Andrew Bannon (The Conservative Candidate) 357 Tara Bardot Jackson (Buy the Daily Sport Party) 67 Mark Belcher (Ian for King) 23 John Crockard (Highlander IV Wednesday Promotion Night Party) 48 Karl Fitzhugh (Alfred Chicken Party) 18 Mark Griffiths (Natural Law Party) 45 Robert Hayward (Conservative) 16,737 Peter Hollyman (Save the National Health Service) 60 Nigel Lickley (Labour) 1,453 Diana Maddock (Liberal Democrat) 33,164 Peter Newman (Sack Graham Taylor Party) 80 Alan Sked (Anti-Maastricht Anti-Federalist League) 878 Lord David Sutch (Monster Raving Loony Rock-Roll Party) 404 John Walley (Rainbow Alliance Coalition) 16 Turnout 74.6% Swing 35% Majority 16,427 1992 general election: Conservatives 36,627, Lib Dem 13,612; Labour 6,997. Cons majority 23,015 -----------------------------------------------------------------