The Conservatives easily capture a prime parliamentary seat in a by-election, delivering another blow to Gordon Brown and his ruling Labour Party.
By-election blow for UK Labour
LONDON // The Conservatives easily captured a prime parliamentary seat in a by-election yesterday, delivering another blow to Gordon Brown and his ruling Labour Party. David Cameron, the Conservative leader, was delighted after his candidate's victory in Norwich North, not least because the victory margin was far greater than opinion polls had suggested.
In the event, the Tories' Chloe Smith - who, at 27, will become the youngest MP in the Commons - received more than twice as many votes as her Labour opponent, Chris Ostrowski, whose campaign had been curtailed after he fell victim to suspected swine flu on Tuesday. Mr Cameron, who made six visits to Norwich during the campaign, described his party's victory as "absolutely historic" and said that Ms Smith was typical of the new brand of MP that he wanted to see in the House of Commons.
Were the Norwich result to be repeated in voting patterns across the country at a general election, Mr Cameron would be swept into 10 Downing Street with a majority of 218. But the turnout in the constituency, which Labour had held with a majority of 4,500 at the last general election, fell from 61 per cent in 2005 to 43 per cent this time, reflecting voters' general disaffection with politics following the MPs' expenses scandal.
There was also considerable anger locally that the popular Ian Gibson, the retiring MP who had first been elected in New Labour's 1997 landslide, had been deselected by the Labour Party nationally after becoming embroiled in the expenses row. Ms Smith said after her victory that "people had voted for change and had sent a message to Gordon Brown that was very loud and very clear". "Roll on the general election when the British people also have the opportunity to vote for change," she said.
Mr Brown has been reeling from a series of setbacks this year with the Labour Party recording disastrous results in recent European and local council elections. Mr Brown acknowledged that his party had done badly but partly blamed the defeat on voters registering their "anger and dismay" over the expenses scandal. "This is clearly a disappointing result," he said, "but I think that ? the voters were clearly torn between their anger and dismay at what has been happening over MPs' expenses, something that we are trying to clean up, and at the same time the support for the former MP, Ian Gibson, who was very popular."
Nevertheless, the facts from Norwich North were ominous for a ruling party less than a year from a general election, especially as an opinion poll last weekend suggested that the Tories had only a 34 to 30 per cent lead over Labour in the constituency. In the event, the Conservatives polled just below 40 per cent of the vote, well up from the 33 per cent they received at the 2005 general election. They notched up a swing of 16.49 per cent from Labour.
Ms Smith finished with 13,591 votes to Mr Ostrowski's 6,243, which itself was only 1,200 votes ahead of the third-placed Liberal Democrats. The UK Independence Party and the Green Party, which had both made overly optimistic noises during the campaign of finishing in second place, came home with 4,068 and 3,350 votes respectively. To the relief of all the mainstream parties, the far right British National Party, which succeeded in getting two members elected in the European parliament elections recently, polled fewer than 1,000 votes.