Britain Votes: Blair sleeps easy but wakes to learn a hard lesson

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TONY BLAIR retired to bed at 10.30pm on Thursday night, confident enough not to wait up for the first results in the local authority and Scottish Parliament elections. In contrast, an anxious William Hague chaired a meeting of his closest aides at 2am at Conservative Central Office.

The roles of the Prime Minister and Opposition leader were reversed in the biggest test of public opinion since Mr Blair came to power. Normally, it is the Government which suffers a bout of the mid-term blues; this time, it was the Opposition which was fighting to stay alive.

Mr Blair described the town hall and Scottish Parliament results as "fine" when he discussed them with Alastair Campbell, his press secretary, at 7am yesterday morning. But as the day wore on, it was Mr Blair rather than Mr Hague who had reason to frown.

While the votes were counted in the Welsh Assembly elections yesterday, warning signals were flashed to Downing Street by Labour officials in Cardiff: Plaid Cymru was doing unexpectedly well and Labour would be denied an overall majority in the 60-seat body.

Labour suspected all along it would not govern alone in the Scottish Parliament. Indeed, the use of proportional representation (PR) for the first time in a British election was designed to produce exactly the Lib- Lab coalition which will almost certainly run Scotland's first Parliament for almost 300 years.

"We took our eye off the ball in Wales, and paid too much attention to Scotland," a Blair aide admitted as one bad result followed another in Wales. Senior Labour figures admitted the party had been damaged by in- fighting and two divisive battles for the right to become First Secretary in the Welsh Assembly.

Labour's surprisingly poor results in Wales illustrated the perils of devolution for Mr Blair. He showed his "control freak" tendencies by moving heaven and earth to install Alun Michael, the Secretary of State for Wales, as the head of the new Assembly, rather than take a chance on Rhodri Morgan, the popular but maverick backbencher. But the bigger prize of controlling the new body has been lost.

One aide jokingly described Mr Blair's much-trumpeted "third way" as "being able to have your cake and eat it". The Prime Minister discovered yesterday that devolution means the voters, and not the politicians, decide the menu.

In Scotland, too, the "new politics" means that Labour will not have everything its own way. Mr Blair hinted heavily yesterday that he was ready to compromise over tuition fees for university students as the price for bringing the Liberal Democrats into a coalition to run the Edinburgh Parliament.

Mr Blair insisted that Plaid Cymru did much better than a very disappointed Scottish National Party because it had renounced independence at the start of the campaign. But that did not disguise Labour's shock at failing to win an overall majority in Cardiff.

The other lesson from "Super Thursday" is that, under a PR system, the parties cannot take their traditional supporters for granted. At general elections, Labour normally weighs its votes in its Welsh heartlands such as the Rhondda Valley and Islwyn, both seized by the nationalists yesterday.

Under the first-past-the-post system, there is little need to get out the vote, and the party can devote its energies to marginal seats. Under PR, every vote counts, and so the parties must persuade their supporters to turn out; Labour conspicuously failed to do so in Wales on Thursday.

But Mr Blair can still afford a little satisfaction at what he calls the "big picture". The local authority results suggest that Labour remains remarkably popular for a mid-term government, and on course for another big majority at the next general election, when the much bigger turnout would work to Labour's advantage.

The worrying sign for Labour was the party's failure to mobilise its support in its traditional northern heartlands, where the Liberal Democrats are now a serious threat. In public, cabinet ministers are saying that a "culture of contentment" with the Government means people have no reason to vote. Privately, some of them are worried that Mr Blair's incessant pitch to the middle classes - and his reluctance to trumpet the redistributive measures introduced by Gordon Brown - are alienating the working classes, and the council results show they can damage Labour by staying at home.

The immense sense of relief in Tory circles at the party's mini-recovery shows how low its expectations had sunk. To come three points behind Labour in the overall share of the vote at this stage of the parliament is hardly the triumph proclaimed by the Tories.