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Friday, 5 May, 2000, 04:24 GMT 05:24 UK
Romsey: What the result means

Sandra Gidley benefitted from Labour collapse
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

The Liberal Democrats have pulled off another of their by-election sensations by snatching the "safe" seat of Romsey from the Tories.

In a disastrous result for both the Conservatives and Labour, Lib Dem Sandra Gidley stormed to victory - only the second time this century the party has taken a seat from the Tories while they were in opposition.

The result dismayed the Tories who had expected to hold on to the seat and who were elsewhere celebrating huge gains in local council polls.

Under normal circumstances, with a Labour government locked in mid-term blues, the Tories should have held onto the seat or even increased its share of the vote.

Tim Palmer should have been safe
Instead voters were clearly still venting their anger at the Conservatives for their previous record in government.

It also suggested William Hague's controversial remarks on asylum seekers and law and order had not played as well in the constituency as elsewhere in the country.

But the result was a greater catastrophe for Labour whose candidate, Andrew Howard, lost his deposit as the party's vote collapsed.

And there was little doubt that the Lib Dems had benefited hugely from disaffection with the Labour party and picked up all those anti-Tory votes.

Brave face

The outcome was far worse than Labour had been predicting and will underline the local council results which saw the party losing huge numbers of seats across England.

The Conservative candidate Tim Palmer put a brave face on it, pointing out that his party's vote had only fallen 4% below the general election result.

It was also claimed that Labour and the Liberal Democrats had done a deal to maximise the anti-Tory vote.

Senior Tories suggested Labour had deliberately run a low key campaign to give Mrs Gidley a clear run at the seat.

There was little sign of that on the ground in Romsey and, if such a deal had been done, it backfired as Labour did worse than it expected.

With Labour already lamenting its huge losses in the local polls, the Romsey result was a further warning that Tony Blair needs to start delivering on his last general election pledges or face serious problems at the next poll.

Work to do

And, while the result will severely disappoint Mr Hague and take the shine of his local council celebrations, it will not be enough to re-open speculation about his leadership.

But it does show that he still has a lot of work to do to re-inspire grassroots Tories after the 1997 general election.

The Lib Dems, meanwhile, are celebrating another by-election stunner which will put a real spring in their step in the run up to the next general election.

It is a particularly welcome result for leader Charles Kennedy who has been facing criticism for his style and impact with voters.

He was always going to have a tough job following his predecessor Paddy Ashdown but there have been growing whispers in Westminster about his lack of impact.

The Romsey result will go a long way towards ending that talk and giving him exactly the sort of boost he needs to underpin his leadership.

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