There are limits to the skinhead school of politics

Any hopes by Conservative MPs that tactical voting would die once they were finally defeated in 1997, have been dashed by those wretched Liberal Democrats in Romsey who so unsportingly pooped William Hague's celebrations in the early hours of last Friday morning.

Thankfully Mr Hague sensibly called the by-election on the same day as the local elections where he was able to grab good headlines following his 600 council seat gains. He was also able to reflect in the glory of Steve Norris's creditable performance in London and it would be churlish not to allow him to milk these triumphs in front of the media. Imagine, however, the state of meltdown there would otherwise have been on the opposition backbenches if the only headline was the loss of a safe Conservative seat.

It is now clear that there stalks a new danger from the Liberal Democrats, which will strike fear and loathing into the hearts of several dozen Tory MPs. So far, it has been assumed that the main effort in securing the Conservative recovery depends on highlighting the battle with Labour. Most of us, including me, had assumed that the days of Liberal Democrats making inroads into the traditional bastions of Conservative strongholds would end as soon as Labour took office. The Conservatives must now recognise, privately at least, that they face a war on two fronts.

A cursory glance at the Conservatives' most marginal seats shows an alarming prospect upon which they must focus immediately. Never mind that Romsey was their fifty-something safest seat. Let us examine, for example, their fiftieth most marginal. In Epping Forest, Eleanor Laing won in 1997 beating the Liberal Democrats with a majority of just over 5,000. The Labour vote was 7,000. On the basis of Romsey, a collapse in the Labour vote next time will cause the Liberal Democrats to get excited. Clearly, a general election will spread the Liberal Democrats efforts far too widely for Epping Forest to be at risk.

But if we take a look at the really close results where the Conservatives were engaged in nail biting finishes with the Liberal Democrats, many of Mr Hague's backbenchers will be mulling over the consequences of Romsey with dread in their hearts.

In the neighbouring county of Dorset, for example, three seats were only just won by the Conservatives over the Liberal Democrats. A sizeable Labour vote is still there for the milking. The evidence of last Thursday shows that disgruntled Labour voters can now kill two birds with one stone and deliver Charles Kennedy hitherto electoral bounty at the next general election. A Labour voter in the safe Labour areas, where in spite of low turnouts votes are still weighed, feels disenfranchised and protests by staying in front of the television. But a Labour voter in Dorset can protest against the failures of Blairism while, at the same time, delivering a body blow to William Hague.

This is uncharted political water for Mr Hague who would do well to devote serious attention to the prospect that, while he should make gains at Labour's expense in the Labour marginals, he could be facing serious losses in his own territory where Liberal Democrats are a strong second and Labour has still enough votes yet to be squeezed.

It is clear that commentators and the Conservative Party have under-estimated Mr Kennedy and we can expect the aftershocks of Romsey to last up to the general election. The worst nightmare for Conservatives after a Liberal Democrat by-election win is that the effect always has a longer lasting morale boost on Liberal Democrats.

Mr Kennedy has taken a long time to find his feet in the Commons. Actually few Liberal Democrat leaders thrive, particularly, inside Parliament. Unkind, although accurate, comparisons about Mr Kennedy's question time performances have been made with his predecessor, Paddy Ashdown. And yet, if we look back, albeit fondly, to Mr Ashdown's stewardship of his party, we must not forget the groans he endured when he sought to make himself heard.

What made Mr Ashdown successful was the oxygen of by-election and local government victories which he achieved away from Westminster. Similarly, Mr Kennedy's stature is enhanced less by the parliamentary dog-fight at Prime Minister's question time than the comparable oxygen of success at Romsey.

Conservatives hate fighting Liberals. As a Tory MP in the 1980s I had to contend with them as my principal opponents. They would, and presumably still do, say one thing to my own disgruntled supporters while cashing in on moderate Labour supporters who could not bring themselves to vote for Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock. As a result, they ran me second.

The Libs are not above opposing and supporting controversial planning applications and local road improvement schemes in front of different audiences.

In one election, 1987, they were so dodgy that they even had election posters of the parliamentary candidate scattered in supporters' windows throughout the constituency stating that he lived at each of their addresses. "Vote for your local Liberal/Alliance candidate - he lives here", convinced voters in about 20 villages that he actually lived in each particular village. I found myself doing everything I did to boost the chances of the Labour candidate who came bottom in 1983 and 1987. So successful was I that Labour came second in 1992 and, ironically, thanks to those efforts, established them as the best bet to oust me five years later.

The fact that I was once anxious to boost the Labour vote should be a warning to Mr Hague's strategists as they sometimes wonder why not enough Conservative backbenchers turn up to debates and question time and put the boot into Mr Blair. The truth is that there is a substantial number of Conservative MPs whose purpose is served by the Labour Government retaining the support of its "core" in their constituencies if the Liberal Democrats are second.

While the hierarchy will be delighted at the council gains they made last week, there will be many MPs whose defeat by Liberal Democrats is certain unless Labour supporters stay loyal and turn out and vote for Mr Blair.

Mr Hague would be wise to call up Sir Anthony Steen, the MP for Totnes, who beat the Liberal Democrats by 877 votes. Sir Anthony has long recognised that, next time, with a Labour vote of nearly 9,000 last time, seats like his are vulnerable, perversely, the greater the disenchantment in Tony Blair. Sir Anthony warned, last year, that it was necessary for the Conservative machine to devote more effort to meeting the Lib Dem challenge. It may be that Mr Hague has decided that the potential gains from Labour outweigh the risks of losing the likes of Totnes. But the Romsey result has highlighted these dangers. The more thoughtful owls in Central Office (if there are any) should face up to this.

It would be ironic if the Conservatives gained 40 Labour seats while losing 20 to the Lib Dems. At the moment it looks as though Mr Hague has decided to press on with his "skinhead Conservatism" but he needs to see the electoral damage the Liberal Democrats can do to this approach - and to him.

Comments