Lingering doubts over Ming

AS the Liberal Democrats celebrated the election of Sir Menzies Campbell as their new leader, his emergence from the swamp which has immersed his party since January seems to have done little to improve their prospects, according to the first opinion poll undertaken in the new era of enlightenment.

By Graham Dines

AS the Liberal Democrats celebrated the election of Sir Menzies Campbell as their new leader, his emergence from the swamp which has immersed his party since January seems to have done little to improve their prospects, according to the first opinion poll undertaken in the new era of enlightenment.

Fewer than one in five - 19% - said they are now more likely to back the Lib Dems, according to Populus which surveyed the top 10 Labour-held and top 10 Tory-held seats the party has targeted.

Almost a third, 31%, are more likely to vote Conservative because of new leader David Cameron, the poll found, while 28% are more likely to back Labour if, as expected, Gordon Brown takes over from Tony Blair.


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Early days of course, but at 64, Sir Ming's age looks on this polling evidence to be a major handicap for him to overcome. Despite his years of experience, just 19% see the veteran MP as Prime Ministerial material.

The Lib Dem leadership contest failed to ignite enthusiasm in the seats they must win to make advances at the next election. Just 7% said of those polled said they were very interested in the campaign while almost half, 47%, said they are not interested at all.

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Populus polled 500 adults in the top 10 Labour-held and top 10 Tory-held Lib Dem target seats immediately after Sir Menzies' election yesterday.

But as political activists are always prone to say when they see a gloomy set of poll figures, it's the ballot box that counts - real votes by real people. Last week's crop of local government by-elections produced really mixed results for the main parties.

In the Merseyside borough of Sefton, Labour swept away the Lib Dems on a 16.2% swing with the Tories trailing in last behind the far right British National Party. Over the Pennines in the County Durham district of Darlington, once a Tory parliamentary constituency, the Conservatives held a council ward despite a 13.4% swing to the Lib Dems.

Meanwhile in Honiton in East Devon district, the Conservatives saw off a spirited challenge from the Lib Dems to hold on a seat with a 12.2% swing to David Cameron's party.

As I often repeat, however, council by-elections are fought on local issues which will have no bearing on the outcome of a General Election. And the latest batch doesn't really get us any nearer in interpreting how the parties will do in this year's district council elections, which will be the first real test of the Conservatives and Lib Dems under their new leaders.

But for the record, the Press Association has calculated that these by-elections indicate the state of the parties nationwide as Tories 38.1%, Labour 29.5, and Lib Dems 26.6%.

THIS column was written in advance of my heading off for the Baltic Sea coast and Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, one of the 10 countries which were a welcome addition to the European Union in 2004. It's pleasing to note that enlargement is carrying on apace, with Romania, Croatia, and Bulgaria expected to join within the next few years and the opening of accession talks with Turkey being the only tangible outcome of last year's UK's presidency of the EU.

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