Liberal Democrats cry foul in election race

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You know an election is in full swing when the parties start accusing each other of using dirty tricks. The first people to scream foul this year are the Liberal Democrats.

The veteran campaigner Baroness Shirley Williams has accused the Conservatives of targeting safe Liberal Democrat seats with the aim of "taking out" some of its senior figures.

"I have the strong impression they are putting much more money into fighting the Lib Dems and particularly our most prominent and well known figures," she said.

"It's going much further than it has at other elections.

"Some of the Lib Dems they are targeting are some of the finest people we have brought into politics and I just don't understand it".

Baroness Williams isn't alone - Sir Bob Russell in Colchester (majority 6,900) accused the Conservatives of "trying to buy my seat".

He said: "They've spent in excess of £100,000 over the last six months on leaflets which attack me."

Sir Bob, who won the Colchester seat in 2010, points out that in the last month the prime minister, the chancellor, the home secretary and other ministers have all been to his seat to campaign.

Sinister explanation

In many ways the Conservative strategy makes sense - the party wants an overall majority in the next parliament, which means it not only needs to hold onto all its present seats but also win some new ones.

With Labour neck and neck with the Tories in the opinion polls, Labour seats are considered hard to win. So, the theory goes, why not go after Lib Dem seats where the vote is supposedly collapsing?

Baroness Williams offers a more sinister explanation: "I don't think they're going for the seats which are most winnable, but for the MPs which are best known. That sounds like decapitation to me.

"It's as if they want to cut off our natural leadership, so if we do stick it out as a possible coalition partner, our best known figures will have gone."

Six months ago there was incredulity in Liberal Democrat circles when we reported the Conservatives were talking about taking Health Minister Norman Lamb's seat in north Norfolk (majority 11,600).

But we understand the Tories carried out detailed polling in the constituency and some Liberal Democrats believe that Mr Lamb may also be a target.

Mr Lamb said he hasn't seen any evidence of targeting but he complains about "the obscene amount of money which the Conservatives are throwing at some of our seats.

"To me this proves how important it is to have regulation of party funding," he said.

Image caption Talking about a "decapitation strategy" is "a bit rich", said Home Secretary Theresa May

But the Conservatives are unrepentant.

"This is the pot calling the kettle black," said one long term Conservative campaigner in Norfolk, who believes he has often been at the receiving end of Lib Dem attacks.

The Home Secretary Theresa May, on a visit to Norwich, was even more robust. "It's a bit rich the Liberal Democrats talking about a decapitation strategy," she said.

"I was one of the people they had a decapitation strategy against in 2005.

"At election times parties go out, they stand their candidates and they want them to win.

"We're out there and I want to see as many Conservatives as possible elected because I think they'll make great MPs".

There is a danger that this strategy could back fire - Sir Bob Russell believes the Conservative leaflets are driving Labour voters to him and embarrassing "soft" Conservative supporters.

The final result in Colchester will be very interesting to watch.

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