Tories deny by-election claims
The Conservative high command has strongly denied giving the Liberal Democrats an easy ride in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election in an attempt to avert a catastrophic collapse in support for their coalition partners.
Prime Minister David Cameron insisted he was "proud" of the Conservative campaign despite seeing his party finish a distant third while the Lib Dems were unable to overturn a wafer-thin Labour majority.
Labour leader Ed Miliband said the voters had sent a "very clear message" to the coalition as Labour extended its 103-vote majority at the general election in May to 3,558.
Debbie Abrahams, the Labour candidate, was a comfortable winner with 14,718 votes, ahead of Lib Dem Elwyn Watkins with 11,160. Tory Kashif Ali was third with 4,481 as support for the Conservatives fell away sharply.
The Lib Dems had forced the contest after Mr Watkins mounted a successful legal challenge to the general election result, claiming his Labour opponent Phil Woolas had lied about him.
But as the Lib Dems' opinion poll ratings plummeted after they abandoned their pledge to oppose any increase in university tuition fees, there were fears that they could suffer a massive loss of support. As it was, the party's vote largely held up - apparently with the help of some tactical voting by Conservative supporters.
Among some Tories, however, there was anger at what they saw as a deliberately lacklustre campaign designed to ensure maximum support for the Lib Dems - a claim fiercely denied by party chairman Baroness Warsi.
"I led this campaign and every resource was put into it," she said. "We never attacked the Liberal Democrat party but we never campaigned for them either."
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, who made three campaign visits to the constituency, claimed it had been a "strong result" for his party, saying that he had always expected a "very close race" with Labour.
However, Labour leader Mr Miliband said: "This is a first step in a long journey for Labour but, more importantly, I hope the Government will listen to what they've said about these key issues. They said to the Government, think again on VAT, think again on the trebling of tuition fees, think again on the police cuts that are going to affect their communities."