Enigmatic, boastful - or fall guys?

THE Liberal Democrats really are an enigma. They believe they are heading for a spectacular night of election glory on May 1, but they have certainly taken their eye off the ball in Maldon and Suffolk.

THE Liberal Democrats really are an enigma. They believe they are heading for a spectacular night of election glory on May 1, but they have certainly taken their eye off the ball in Maldon and Suffolk.

While St Edmundsbury and Forest Heath have just a scattering of Lib Dem candidates for the council elections a week on Thursday, in Maldon not one person could be found to contest any seat. Maldon is a small, mostly rural authority, based around a well-healed market town, just the sort of territory Charles Kennedy believes his party can pick off the electoral tree like ripe cherries.

With 31 seats up for grabs, the Lib Dems ought to have been able to field enough candidates to give the Tories a run for their money. But not a peep from Britain's "real opposition party." The no-show has delighted John Whittingdale, the town's Conservative MP and Shadow Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport. "So much for a national party," he says dismissively.

Next month marks the 10th anniversary of the end of Tory rule on the county council. To honour the achievement, the Labour Party has issued a glossy, full colour brochure "Suffolk Succeeds with Labour."


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It's up to others to decide if this title is accurate, but the booklet overlooks one crucial fact. The Lib Dems have jointly ruled Suffolk with Labour for the past 10 years, but a line-by-line search reveals only one reference to the Lib Dems – the parties "announced an historic accord to work together to produce the first non-Tory administration for more than a century."

And that's your lot. The Liberal Democrat contribution to the past 10 years is totally ignored – the glory is all Labour's. If the Lib Dems are unhappy at this slight, they haven't said publicly so we are left to assume they are more than content to be brushed aside.

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In an introduction to the booklet, Ipswich's Labour MP Chris Mole – who led the county council from 1993 to 2001 – rubs salt into Lib Dem wounds, describing the policies of the past 10 years as "a fitting tribute to Labour's effort, a symbol of our wish to invest and reform all our public services. To deliver the best for everyone in Suffolk."

Mind you, the Liberal Democrats may get their own back if they fulfil their own prediction and grab Cambridge at the next General Election. Their candidate David Howarth believes plans to introduce top up fees of £3,000 will encourage students to register to vote in the city and that he will be the main beneficiary.

However, Mr Howarth will have to defeat sitting Labour MP Ann Campbell. And scotching reports that she doesn't intend seeking re-election, Ms Campbell – majority 8,579 – says: "I've seen off Mr Howarth at two General Elections and will do so again next time."

She quit as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt in protest against the Iraq war, a decision which will have earned her several Brownie points with the soft left of Cambridge's academia.

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