Lib Dems face the flak

THE absence of council by-elections last week makes it difficult to judge the effect of the Iraqi war on public opinion and of voting intentions.On May 1, there is a massive test for all parties with contests in every English district.

THE absence of council by-elections last week makes it difficult to judge the effect of the Iraqi war on public opinion and of voting intentions.

On May 1, there is a massive test for all parties with contests in every English district. While critical for the future of Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, the results will be a verdict also on the anti-war stance of the Liberal Democrats.

In Suffolk and Essex, the Liberal Democrats currently control outright, or lead a coalition, in Chelmsford, Colchester, Uttlesford, and Mid Suffolk and it would be a severe blow if they surrendered power to the Conservatives in any of them in May.

While the Lib Dems anticipate Labour protesters against the war will switch to them, the Tories think there'll be mass abstentions among Labour loyalists and that Lib Dems voters will turn to the Conservatives in protest at what they claim is Charles Kennedy's perverse attitude to the war and the armed forces.


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One casualty of the war will be the Liberal Democrats' long-term hope of persuading the Government to introduce voting reform. There is a barely disguised seething resentment among Cabinet ministers and pro-war Labour MPs at what they see as a totally cynical ploy to grab the anti-war vote by Charles Kennedy. Next time the Lib Dems come knocking at the door seeking proportional representation, they'll laughed all the way to Baghdad.

The Liberal Democrat positioning has united the Labour and Conservative front benches at Westminster against Lib Dem "opportunism." Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith is perhaps even more resentful than the Prime Minister – most of the Lib Dems who won in 1997 and 2001 took middle class seats from the Tories whose voters could normally be relied upon to lead the charge in favour of military action.

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Although the Lib Dems are now publicly backing the troops, once conflict is over I expect the Conservatives to target vigorously several of Charles Kennedy's MPs. One of them will be Paul Keetch, the party's defence spokesman.

After months of opposing action, Mr Keetch issued a statement that said: "Our troops are incredibly courageous, and we pay tribute to them all. They have a difficult job to do, in a difficult environment, and they deserve our full support."

As well he might. Mr Keetch's constituency is Hereford, home of the SAS, many of whom are operating covertly behind enemy lines, and for whom the Liberal Democrats' anti-war policy must have sounded like treason.

With a majority of just 968, it may be time to get down to the bookies and put a few notes on a victory for Tory candidate Virginia Taylor, a local JP and the daughter of a Suffolk pig farmer.

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