Page last updated at 10:59 GMT, Friday, 10 February 2006

Taking stock after the upset

By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

After weeks of negative headlines and internal turmoil, the sensational Dunfermline by-election victory was just what the Liberal Democrats needed to put a spring back into their steps.

Willie Rennie and Catherine Stihler
Labour had expected to stave off the Liberal Democrat challenge

They had claimed throughout the campaign that they could seize this once rock-solid Labour seat, and some of them might even have believed it.

But after the recent leadership problems, most would have been delighted with a good second place.

The victory will have come as a huge, welcome surprise to them.

The presence in the campaign of former leader Charles Kennedy - a hugely popular figure - was being cited by some as at least a contributory factor.

The final result is seriously bad news for Labour, which has seen continuing signs that people are prepared to use local polls to express their feelings towards the government.

Warning to Labour?

But even as the polls were closing, campaign managers were claiming they would hang onto the seat, albeit it with a vastly reduced majority.

Ministers will try to put it all down to local issues, but even Labour's defeated candidate claimed it was a warning to the party to listen more to people's concerns.

And it was a particular embarrassment for Gordon Brown, who lives in the constituency and threw his weight into the local Labour campaign.

If he does take over from Tony Blair in the near future he will have the constant reminder of this shock and the apparent snub to his own pulling power sitting right on his doorstep.

It was no better for Tory leader David Cameron, who also visited the campaign and saw his party's vote fall from the general election.

The Tories were never going to make any real impact in this seat, but Mr Cameron wanted to see signs of progress and evidence that his leadership was making a difference in difficult areas.

He has claimed there will be no no-go areas for the Tories under his leadership, but that needs to start in Scotland.

Finally, the SNP will also be disappointed with their result, even though it increased its share of the vote over the general election result.

Needless to say, all the usual warning about not reading too much into by-elections need to be sounded.

History is littered with examples of the third party scoring sensational by-election victories which failed to translate into any national breakthrough.

But, with the general election advances under their belts, the Lib Dems will see this latest success as further evidence that they really are now challengers for power up there with the other two big parties.

And they will hope it has put them back on track after what most agree has been a disastrous few weeks for the party.

In quotes: Lib Dem election win
10 Feb 06 |  Scotland
Rousing end to tense by-election
10 Feb 06 |  Scotland
Hundreds mourn Rachel Squire MP
03 Feb 06 |  Scotland
Kennedy joins by-election drive
02 Feb 06 |  Scotland

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