CONSERVATIVE candidate Tom Sackville stayed loyal to John Major, despite the Labour rout which cost him his job after 14 years representing Bolton West.

The former Tory MP refused to blame the party leadership for the Labour landslide which opened the way for rival Ruth Kelly.

With just over a week to go before her 29th birthday, the Bank of England inflation expert is now set to join Blair's brat pack and become one of the youngest MPs in the Commons.

Mr Sackville blamed internal divisions in the Conservative Party, particularly over Europe, and a slick Labour campaign for his own defeat and the emerging Tory meltdown.

But there were no bitter recriminations and he said of John Major: "He has had a very difficult time.

"I do not know of anyone who could have done any better." Suggesting he might stand again in five years' time, Mr Sackville added: "The British people will regret making this decision. We will be be back."

Earlier there were taunts from Labour supporters in the public gallery who sang "goodbyee" as the votes started piling up for Ruth Kelly.

But when she took to the stand to make her victory speech, the Blair-ite candidate praised Mr Sackville and his election team.

"My opponents have fought honourable battles and the voters of Bolton West have been able to choose between policies and not just personalities," she said.

"In making their decision, they have resoundingly rejected 18 years of Tory rule. "I am delighted the voters of Bolton West have embraced New Labour and Tony Blair and placed their trust in me." Mr Sackville refused to look downhearted and called on Ruth Kelly to make gaining university status for Bolton Institute of Higher Education her number one priority as an MP.

And he had some friendly advice for his pregnant victor: "Get your priorities right.

"Put your constituency and your family first.

"The House of Commons has enough hot air in it to look after itself."

The Liberal Democrats were putting on a brave face and claimed their vote had only fallen slightly despite a massive squeeze by the two main parties.

Lib Dem candidate, Cllr Barbara Ronson, teased colleagues in the public gallery when she said: "There are a bunch of councillors out there who will not be able to blame the government any more." BOLTON WEST

Ruth Kelly (Lab) 24,342

*Tom Sackville (Con) 17,270

Barbara Ronson (Lib Dem) 5,309

Dot Kelly (Soc Lab) 1,374

Glenda Slater (Ref) 865

LABOUR GAIN. Majority: 7,072

Percentage Poll: 77pc.

Swing: 11.31 to Labour.

1992 result: T Sackville (Con) 26, 452; C Morris (Lab) 25,373; B Ronson (Lib Dem) 7,529; J Phillips, (Nat Law) 240. Majority 1,079.

Boundary change seat.

Converted for the new archive on 14 July 2000. Some images and formatting may have been lost in the conversion.