Crewe voters set to derail Labour's fightback

James Elson, a retired postman, delivers a damning verdict on Gordon Brown: "He was a better chancellor than prime minister." The 79-year-old lifelong Labour voter, basking in a sun-trap in the middle of Crewe, is so disillusioned that he is going to do the unthinkable in the upcoming by-election and vote Tory. He is hardly brimming over with enthusiasm for David Cameron's new-look party but shrugs and says he will "give them a go for a change".

A few hundred yards away in the Cheshire town's Market Square, Charles Carson is fiddling with his bicycle. His words would do little to comfort the Prime Minister. "This may be a Labour town but we want improvements in Crewe," he says. "I think the Conservatives will win this time round. They have more get-up-and-go and people think Labour haven't lived up to their promises."

That Labour supporters are in such open revolt in Crewe – a bastion of party loyalty since the Second World War – can only mean one thing: Mr Brown is in deep trouble.

Judging by the mood on its streets, it looks increasingly likely that the town best known for its vast railway engineering yards will deal a fresh blow to the Prime Minister's hopes of a long-term residency in Downing Street.

And, if the stakes are high for Labour in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, caused by the death of its independent-minded MP Gwyneth Dunwoody, then it also poses searching questions for the opposition.

Can the Tories demonstrate they have real momentum in the northern industrial towns that have been immune to their charms since the early 1990s and achieve the formidable 8.3 per cent swing required for victory in Crewe?

And can Nick Clegg, in his first by-election test as Liberal Democrat leader, avoid the embarrassment of seeing his party sidelined in a Labour-Tory showdown?

Mr Cameron has declared that the contest on 22 May will be a verdict on the Prime Minister's bungled decision to abolish the 10p minimum rate of income tax.

Labour has responded by vowing to fight on local issues – crime, redevelopment of Crewe town centre, immigration from eastern Europe – while making little reference to the party's national performance.

It believes it has scored a coup by selecting Ms Dunwoody's daughter, Tamsin, to stand in the hope that her name recognition factor will help to win back Labour waverers on polling day. The party has also fired the opening shots in a campaign to demolish the credibility of the Tory candidate, Edward Timpson, by playing on his wealth and lack of local links.

The strategy is risky for Labour. Ms Dunwoody lives nearly 200 miles away in west Wales, yet her Tory opponent was brought up in Cheshire – albeit plush Tarporley, a world away from Crewe's red-brick terraces – and has been nursing the seat since last summer.

Mr Timpson, who is from the family that runs the Timpsons chain of shoe repairers, said he was unaffected by the "Tory toff" jibe. He even insisted he had a "bit of a laugh" when two Labour activists dressed in top hats and tails confronted him during a walkabout in Crewe.

He denied that accusations about his class would put off the voters, adding: "I don't believe the people I've met over the past year are interested in it – they are interested in getting police back on the streets and getting the council tax down to an affordable level."

Labour is inevitably focusing on Crewe rather than its smaller Tory-leaning neighbour, Nantwich. It privately admits it has a "mountain to climb" to hold on to a seat won at the last election by more than 7,000 votes because of the "frustration and anger" over the Government's performance.

The party believes that, in Ms Dunwoody, it has a candidate who can relate to the town's hard-pressed voters and underlined the message yesterday by sending her on a visit to a supermarket.

She insisted she would follow her mother's freedom of thought: "I will judge issues as she did whether they are fair to people and right for people. She taught me well."

Ms Dunwoody added: "What's of interest to the voters of Crewe and Nantwich is what happens once the circus has left town. It's their long-term needs that matter to me."

The Liberal Democrats' campaign made a stumbling start when their original candidate was replaced by Elizabeth Shenton, a councillor in neighbouring Newcastle-under-Lyme.

Ms Shenton dismissed the view of the bookmaker Ladbrokes which has installed the Tories as 4/7 favourites to win, with Labour on 9/4 and the Liberal Democrats on 9/2.

"I'm not a betting woman," she said. "I wouldn't have applied to be the candidate if I didn't think I was capable of winning."

Election result 2005

*Gwyneth Dunwoody (Lab): 21,240 (48.4 per cent of the vote)

*Eveleigh Moore-Dutton (Conservative): 14,162 (32.6 per cent)

*Paul Roberts (Lib Dem): 8,083 (18.6 per cent)

Labour majority: 7,078

Turnout: 60 per cent

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