Newbury by-election: Smith presses flesh to mixed reviews: Labour leader enters the fray to complete his first poll walkabout

SHOPPERS IN Newbury had their first and probably last chance of meeting John Smith in the flesh yesterday as the Labour leader toured the Kennet Centre in support of his party's by-election candidate, Steve Billcliffe.

As often, the occasion was marked by an untenably high number of warm greetings from the guest of honour's supporters, the heaving aside of onlookers by an advancing media crush, and deeply ordinary conversations.

'Nice to see you', 'Great', 'Very good, very good', said Mr Smith during the discussions - VAT on fuel with the pensioners, prescription charges with the mothers and children; 'Give John Major a bit of a shock, eh?' was Mr Billcliffe's stock line.

Not everyone proved a winner. One elderly lady declared she was switching her vote from the Tories to 'that nice Mr Rendel' (David Rendel, the Liberal Democrat), and another mistook Mr Smith for Sir David Steel. A third looked mortified as she told her husband: 'I've just shaken the hand of the Labour leader.'

Mr Smith, on his first by-election walkabout since becoming leader, was enjoying himself. It was 'good fun', he declared, 'all very positive'.

Mary Keating, 55, and her friend Kate Pye, 57, emphasised the underlying point of the exercise as they laid into a television reporter for suggesting they vote tactically for Mr Rendel to keep out the Conservative candidate, Julian Davidson. 'If everybody did that, Labour would never stand a chance,' Mrs Keating said. 'I'd rather vote for Lord Sutch.'

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