Lib Dems scoff at 'green shoot': Ashdown in confident mood as he opens party's by-election campaign in Newbury

THE TORIES have already conceded that they will be lucky to hold the Newbury seat in the 6 May by-election, the Liberal Democrats claimed yesterday - while managing to spot a 'green shoot' in the unlikely form of Julian Davidson, the Conservative candidate.

Mr Davidson, 30, attracted the first catchphrase of the campaign when the Liberal Democrats' daily news conference in the Berkshire town was asked whether the recovery would get under way more quickly if Mr Davidson was elected. At the earlier Tory conference, Mr Davidson pledged that he would 'talk Newbury up and talk Newbury out of the recession'.

David Rendel, the Liberal Democrat candidate, said: 'I have never seen my opponent as an engine of recovery.' Matthew Taylor, the MP for Truro, said: 'I like it . . . Julian as a green shoot.'

Paddy Ashdown, the party leader, made his presence known by making a confident, attacking speech at the Liberal Democrats' rally. But the rally's focus, The Newbury Declaration, urging a new direction, strong leadership and politicians who 'tell the truth', looked leaden. It must have been the only time the party has confined its thoughts to a single A4 sheet.

For Alex Carlile, Liberal Democrat MP for Montgomery, it was not so much Julian 'green shoot' Davidson as 'Julian Who?' Accusing the Government of 'downright sloppy incompetence', Mr Carlile said: 'If the Conservative candidate is elected it will be 'Julian Who?' in the House of Commons. If David is elected it will be 'David Rendel MP'.'

Paul Johnson, the right-wing Fleet Street columnist, yesterday called for an old-style Conservative to stand as an independent in the contest to challenge what he called 'the most unpopular, ineffective and least recognisably Conservative administration in history'. He did not spell out who should be the challenger to Mr Davidson, but Alan Clark, the former arms procurement minister who was rejected as official candidate, would meet his criteria: prominent, no political prospects to sacrifice, willing to 'stand up for England' and say to Newbury voters and the nation what the Tories ought to stand for.

Mr Clark put a spoke in that wheel last night when he said he was not the candidate Mr Johnson may have had in mind. 'I am greatly in sympathy with what Paul Johnson writes. But I could never stand against my own party. I am a senior member of the Conservative Party . . . If you want to change things, you have to do it from within.'

If he changes his mind, nominations do not close until 4pm on Thursday.

At yesterday's Labour campaign launch, Margaret Beckett, the party's deputy leader, insisted that Steve Billcliffe, its candidate, was not a 'no-hoper'. The point was rammed home by Mr Billcliffe: 'I am not a spectator in this. Fate has dealt me a card and we are going to go and win with it.'

General election result: Judith Chaplin (Con) 37,135; David Rendel (Lib Dem) 24,778; Richard Hall (Lab) 3,962; Jim Wallis (Green) 539. Con maj: 12,357. Electorate: 80,252. Turnout: 82.8%.

(Photograph omitted)

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