Britain votes: Local elections - Tories claim victory after major gains

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THE GOVERNMENT dismissed Tory claims of a political recovery last night despite substantial gains made by the Conservatives across the country in the English local elections.

On a night of mixed fortunes for Labour, the Conservatives regained a string of councils that they lost four years ago when their popularity was at an all-time low under John Major's government.

Michael Ancram, the Tory party chairman, even claimed that the party was "on the way to victory" at the next general election after successes in Bromsgrove, Hyndburn, Sedgemore, Hertsmere, Craven, Worthing, Blaby and Malvern.

However the Government claimed that its retention of councils such as Trafford, in the North-west, Broxtowe in Nottinghamshire and Brighton proved that William Hague had failed to make a real impact on the electorate. Both Brighton and Trafford were true-blue Tory areas more than a decade ago.

The Liberal Democrats lost some seats, but were euphoric at the gain of the Labour heartland of Sheffield, their consolidation in Liverpool and an expected victory in Stockport.

Early results projected Labour would poll 36 per cent nationally, the Tories 33 per cent and the Liberal Democrats 27 per cent. Crucially, however, the electorate was clearly unenthusiastic about the elections and turn- out was roughly 29 per cent. This would mean the Conservatives had improved their performance by 8 per cent, Labour was down 10 per cent and the Liberal Democrats up 3 per cent on 1995.

Margaret Beckett, the Leader of the Commons, said that such figures would mean that a sitting Government had polled more than the opposition in mid-term for the first time this century.

The Conservatives performed creditably overall, polling enough votes to avoid the "nightmare scenario" of gaining fewer than 1,000 seats, that would have led to a challenge to Mr Hague. The party was on course to gain at least 1,200 seats.

The Tories were clearly relieved that they had appeared to win back substantial numbers of seats lost in 1995, the party's worst ever performance in living memory when it lost seats to an unstoppable Labour opposition.

As expected, Labour lost seats across the country, but held on to councils like Exeter where it had expected to lose overall control. Equally, the Tories failed to regain seats such as Solihull and Stratford that were once natural Conservative councils.

In Sunderland, the Labour leader lost his seat and in one ward the turnout was 12 per cent, an indication of the biggest problem for the Government.

Early indications showed that turnout nationwide was down to 29 per cent, roughly similar to that a year ago, but down slightly on four years ago. Labour voters appeared to stay at home while the core Tory vote turned out.

Ministers had claimed yesterday that the "politics of contentment", where voters saw no threat from the Tories, meant that few Labour supporters would bother to turn up to the polls.

Hilary Armstrong, the Local Government minister, said that she was "sad" at the loss of the city of Sheffield, but pointed to the poor turnout as the main reason for Labour's performance. "The fact it was a low turnout is a real problem for democracy, that's why this Government is determined to modernise local government."