LIBERAL Democrats and Conservatives are squaring up for their first head-to-head electoral battle since forming the coalition government.
A by election is to be held in the seat of Oldham East and Saddlesworth after Labour immigration spokesman and former Cabinet minister Phil Woolas was last week stripped of the seat for lying about his Liberal Democrat opponent during the General Election.
A special court found he falsely claimed that his rival had sought the support of Muslim extremists who advocate violence. He won a slim victory of 103 votes over Liberal Democrat Elwyn Watkins, who successfully contested the result to get it voided.
Watkins says he is now hopeful of winning the seat, partly on the back of support from Tory voters: “I’ve been surprised by the number of Conservative voters who thought I did a good job to stand up for principle and think they’ve found somebody who’ll stand up for them in parliament,” he said.
Watkins will need support from right-wing voters: Lib Dem poll ratings have sunk to 9 per cent from 27 per cent since just the election.
Tory candidate Kashif Ali came third in Oldham East, with 26 per cent of the vote, and his party would not say whether it had decided who would contest the seat this time around.
There was speculation that the Tories might formally stand aside to help their coalition allies, but recent comments by senior Conservatives confirm that if there is a pact, it will not be official.
Tory chairman Sayeeda Warsi confirmed the party would be fielding a candidate and foreign secretary William Hague said yesterday: “We have not become the same political party. It is a coalition, not a merger.”
With Lib Dem poll ratings so low, Watkins is trying to emphasise the local aspects of the election. “Oldham folk have always decided what they want to do rather than what the national polls decide,” he says.