Lib Dems awake after winter sleep

WHEN Michael Howard was elected Tory leader, the Liberal Democrats virtually disappeared off the political radar as party strategists correctly calculated media attention would focus on the born again Conservatives.

WHEN Michael Howard was elected Tory leader, the Liberal Democrats virtually disappeared off the political radar as party strategists correctly calculated media attention would focus on the born again Conservatives. Their 53 MPs were told to concentrate on building up their constituency power bases in readiness for a national spring onslaught.

Yes, the Conservative are certainly back in business, but they cannot afford to dismiss the Lib Dems capability of queering their pitch, as the Yoxford by-election to Suffolk Coastal district council showed a few weeks ago. And Labour shouldn't be complacent – the Lib Dems are likely to pick up more seats in Ipswich in June's elections and strengthen their positions on Norwich and Cambridge city councils.

The Lib Dems are ever hopeful and talk up their electoral prospects chances. But as I reveal elsewhere on this page, the Howard effect could stymy their chances of winning seats which they believed a few months ago were in the bag.

Even so, General Elections always produce surprises and Labour is going to have to devote considerable time and effort in fighting off determined challenges from the Lib Dems in Norwich South, Cambridge and Watford while the Tories will not be able to relax in Norfolk South.


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Lib Dem activity has certainly increased noticeably in recent weeks. Bury St Edmunds constituency Lib Dems have proudly revealed that Charles Kennedy will be in the region on March 27 to address the East of England spring conference in Norwich. They must be hoping he'll pop into Bury on his way, so confirming their belief that the Lib Dems are the only party capable of unseating Tory MP David Ruffley.

Last weekend, West Chelmsford reselected Stephen Robinson as their candidate, whose main hope must be to regain second place behind Tory MP Simon Burns. The Lib Dems' abysmal performance in West Chelmsford was one of the surprises of the 2001 General Election campaign in Essex, beaten only by the Tory failures to win the Labour marginals of Braintree and Harwich.

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The Lib Dems are confident that they'll be the main challenger to Tory Tim Yeo in Suffolk South while in Norfolk, the party is getting decidedly cocky about its prospects at the General Election. With Norfolk South having fallen to Norman Lamb – who is making a highly impressive front bench overseas aid spokesman in the Commons – the party has firmly set its sights on unseating education secretary Charles Clarke in Norwich South and Tory Richard Bacon in Norfolk South.

Mr Lamb told the South Norfolk party's annual dinner at the weekend: "I firmly believe that what we are now seeing in Norfolk is the start of a repeat of the South West phenomenon where constituency after constituency has fallen to the Liberal Democrats." He points to the growing strength of the Lib Dems across the county, where they now run three of the seven district councils and have pushed Labour into third place in local government.

Anyone prepared to risk their mortgage?

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