AS the opinion polls predicted, the by-election at Oldham East and Saddleworth on Thursday resulted in a comfortable win for Labour, but it was the performance of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives that was of the greatest interest. If the voters had reflected national polling trends the Lib Dems would have been in a poor third place but in the event it was the Conservatives who occupied it instead. So Nick Clegg was able to claim that in government or in opposition we remain a strong, united party whose values continue to attract support. How can the difference between the Lib Dem's single figure support shown by national polls be reconciled with the very decent second place that they got locally on Thursday? Those polls may be getting it seriously wrong but that seems unlikely. Perhaps their respondents cannot understand how the Lib Dems will fight a general election across the board against a party with whom they have co-habited for four years. Or perhaps the strong Liberal sentiment in this Old and Sad constituency asserted itself on this special occasion. As for the Conservatives, despite all protestations to the contrary, it seems likely that David Cameron actually wanted the Lib Dems to do reasonably well so that the coalition can remain in business for a while longer. Even so, it's a dangerous game to play and may rebound on him when he really needs to win.
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