David Cameron on Friday risked the ire of his own party by fuelling suspicions he privately hopes the Liberal Democrats will win the upcoming Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election.

Mr Cameron said that while the Tories would fight for every vote in what is in effect a three-way marginal, he took the unusual step of wishing the Lib Dem candidate well in the contest.

Privately, Tory strategists would be happy to see the Lib Dems put on a strong showing in a seat that the Lib Dems failed to win by only 103 votes at the last election. Mr Cameron is planning to make only one visit to the constituency.

Mr Cameron told his backbench MPs this week that the Tories needed to help the Lib Dems in the interests of maintaining stability in the coalition. That spirit looks likely to apply to the campaign leading up to the January 13 by-election.

Nick Clegg’s party has slumped to 10 per cent or below in some national opinion polls, following the bitter public and media backlash to the party’s U-turn over university tuition fees. The by-election will be a key test of the public mood.

Mr Cameron, speaking at the end of an EU summit in Brussels, said the unusual circumstances of the by-election in Lancashire made him particularly sympathetic to Elwyn Watkins, the Lib Dem candidate,

Phil Woolas won the seat for Labour, but his election was annulled by a special court after he was found to have told lies about his Lib Dem opponent, who is standing again in the by-election.

“Obviously in a coalition you always wish your coalition partners well,” Mr Cameron said. “The context of this by-election is that the MP that the people of Oldham East and Saddleworth elected and the party he represents have been found in court to have told complete untruths about their opponent.

“I think that’s an extremely important context to the election and obviously in that context we wish our partners well, because they had an extremely tough time in that general election locally.”

Although Mr Watkins is Labour’s nearest challenger, the constituency was a three-way marginal in May, with Conservative Kashif Ali fewer than 2,500 votes behind.

Mr Ali is described by senior Tories as “a very good candidate”, a phrase usually accompanied by an apologetic smile, as if to say they would have preferred to field a nonentity to give the Lib Dems a clear run.

Mr Cameron’s comments reflect his fears that the Lib Dems could finish a humiliating third in the by-election, increasing pressure on Nick Clegg from his own backbenchers, many of whom rebelled against him in this month’s tuition fees vote.

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