Britain votes: Lib-Lab deal for the new Scotland

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THE LABOUR Party is expected to share power with the Liberal Democrats in Scotland after yesterday's historic "super Thursday" vote to elect a new Parliament in Edinburgh, an Assembly in Wales and council elections in England.

Early results in Scotland suggested Labour would be denied an overall majority in the Edinburgh Parliament, while an exit poll in Wales forecast that it might struggle to achieve one in the Cardiff Assembly. In England, the Liberal Democrats scored a significant victory in the local authority elections when they captured the traditional Labour bastion of Sheffield and gained overall control in Stockport. Labour also suffered losses in other northern inner city heartlands, losing control in Hyndburn and Kirklees.

The council results pointed to a mini-recovery by the Tories, particularly in the south of England. Senior party figures said early today the results would head off any immediate threat to William Hague's position as Tory leader.

Tory officials claimed a "significant advance" and said they were on course to gain more than 1,000 seats - the crucial benchmark set by Conservative MPs who have threatened to oust Mr Hague.

The Tories said they were on course to win 34 per cent of the votes cast in the town hall elections, up three points on the 1997 general election. But Labour took comfort from winning a bigger share of the overall vote than the Tories, saying it was the first time this century that the Government had outscored the Opposition in a mid-term election.

The BBC survey suggested that only 29 per cent of people bothered to vote in the local elections.

When all the results in Scotland are known today, Labour is expected to open immediate talks with the Liberal Democrats on forming a ruling coalition with the Liberal Democrats in Edinburgh. Last night, senior figures in both parties predicted a Lib-Lab coalition, heralding an era of "new politics" sought by Tony Blair.

A BBC exit poll of 4,000 voters in Scotland and Wales suggested Labour would win between 55 and 61 seats in the 129 member Scottish Parliament, with the Scottish National Party gaining between 41 and 47 seats. The Liberal Democrats would win between 10 and 16 seats, enough to allow Labour to govern with their support. The Tories would win between 11 and 17 seats.

In Wales, the survey suggested a disastrously low turnout of just 35 per cent, which would put a big question mark over the Assembly's credibility.

Labour had been expected to win an overall majority in Wales, but the survey predicted a knife-edge result when the votes are counted today. The poll predicted that Labour, which needed 31 seats to win an overall majority, would win between 28 and 32 seats. Plaid Cymru would win between 13 and 17; the Tories between seven and 11 and the Liberal Democrats between four and eight.

As Scotland elected its first Parliament for almost 300 years, the first result last night gave Hamilton South to Labour with a healthy 7,100 majority, although the SNP registered a 10 per cent swing.

Although Mr Hague appeared to have won a reprieve, he suffered further embarrassment when Alan Duncan, a close ally and a front-bench health spokesman, attacked his strategy of rejecting of a free-market approach to public services as incoherent. Interviewed in today's New Statesman, he urged Mr Hague to "go back to the drawing board".