Britain's coalition partners face-off in last poll race

26th May 2010, Comments 0 comments

Britain's Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties share power in a good natured coalition in London, but their candidates fighting a by-election here are showing no such love for each other.

The northern English constituency of Thirsk and Malton will go to the polls on Thursday, three weeks after the general election due to a postponement caused by the death of a candidate.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, have promised a clean fight and at their first press conference together joked they might share a car to travel up here.

But nobody seems to have told their representatives on the ground.

"She's been completely outrageous," Lib Dem candidate Howard Keal said of his Conservative rival, Anne McIntosh.

The 52-year-old councillor said McIntosh was telling voters he advocates Britain joining the eurozone, a controversial Lib Dem pledge that was dropped in the coalition deal. "I never mentioned the euro," he said.

He hit back by recalling how McIntosh, a lawmaker since 1997, had to repay almost 1,000 pounds (1,400 dollars, 1,200 euros) in parliamentary expenses she claimed for gardening as part of a huge scandal last year.

"If he wants to fight a negative campaign, that's up to him," retorted McIntosh, 55, saying she was fighting on the "strong differences" between her party and the Liberal Democrats.

These include fox-hunting, which was banned in 2004 but has support in this rural area. The Tories want to bring it back, as McIntosh argued: "You do need to control fox numbers and fox hunting is the most human way of doing it."

The former European lawmaker should have no trouble winning Thirsk, a new constituency created from parts of her old seat of Vale of York and another Tory-held seat.

But the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition deal, signed after the May 6 election produced no clear winner, has thrown in a wildcard.

"It is for many people hard to follow, I acknowledge that," admitted William Hague, Britain's new foreign secretary and Conservative lawmaker for neighbouring Richmond.

He campaigned in Thirsk for his "great friend" McIntosh, telling residents above the noise of the local cattle market: "We stand up for the rural area, for agriculture."

Hague told AFP afterwards: "The coalition doesn't extend to the parties campaigning for the same candidate... They're still different parties."

Keal hopes to benefit from the power-sharing deal, which has given the normally marginalised Lib Dems a chance to show what they could do.

"For the first time, the Liberal Democrats have finally found their voice -- look at what we've achieved in a matter of days," he said, noting plans to raise the threshold at which people pay income tax, one of their key pledges.

He says the election is a "two-horse race and all bets are off", but the Labour candidate, Jonathan Roberts, is not giving up that easily.

Aged 28, this is his first campaign and he is trying to position himself above the "unpleasant fighting game" between the Tory and Lib Dem candidates.

In the 2005 election, Labour would have come second with 25 percent of the vote compared to 53 percent for the Tories and just 18 percent for the Lib Dems, according to analysis based on the new constituency boundaries.

"The Lib Dems have betrayed their principles, they ditched their policies -- a vote for the Liberal Democrats is a wasted vote," Roberts said.

He was joined on the campaign trail by former Labour deputy prime minister John Prescott, who entreated Thirsk residents to think big, saying: "You're going to be the only people to have a referendum on the government."

© 2010 AFP

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