Huntingdon could be sole Tory council

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

The Prime Minister's own authority, Huntingdon, could be the only council which remains in Conservative hands when the local elections are held in three weeks' time.

Voting on 2 May will be the biggest electoral test for John Major before the next general election, with his own council the benchmark to measure Tory claims that they have begun a sustained political recovery.

With Thursday's by-election in Staffordshire South East likely to be a matter of seeing whether Labour takes the seat with a record-breaking swing, or simply a massive one, the local elections will give a fuller picture of the state of the three main parties across England.

There are elections for councils covering about half the UK population: all the English metropolitan districts, one-third of rural districts and 14 new single-tier all-purpose councils. There are no elections in London, Scotland, Wales and two-thirds of English rural districts.

If the Tories perform as badly as they did in last year's "wipe out" elections, Huntingdon would be the only authority of those going to the polls to still have a Tory majority, according to analysis by the BBC.

On last year's worst-ever showing, the Tories would lose control of their last urban council, Solihull (which they hold with support from the Ratepayers), as well as such prosperous bastions in the Home Counties as Runnymede (which includes Virginia Water) and Broxbourne (Potters Bar), and Macclesfield in Cheshire.

William Bush, head of the BBC's Political Research Unit, said: "If the Conservatives do as badly as last year, they will lose 650-670 seats - possibly more because the Liberal Democrats are getting better and better at targeting their efforts where it counts."

With the local elections expected to consolidate the Liberal Democrats' position as the second party in British local government, leader Paddy Ashdown has written to his candidates admitting that a strong showing was "vital" to the general election campaign.

The interpretation of this year's local election results is bound to be even more highly charged than in recent years, with the party "spin doctors" moving into top gear. Tory Central Office is likely to seize on elections in the new all-purpose councils, where the results will be compared with elections in the same areas last year.

If the Tory vote recovers, they have a chance of winning Poole and Bournemouth, currently controlled by the Liberal Democrats (backed by Labour in Bournemouth). The Tory chairman, Brian Mawhinney, will seek to capitalise on the possible loss by Labour of its one-vote majority in Portsmouth, although the Liberal Democrats would probably keep Labour in power.

Other all-purpose councils, which do not actually take over from the two-tier district and county councils in their area until next year, are mostly Labour strongholds, such as Bristol, Southampton and Darlington.

All the other council seats contested in May were last fought in 1992, just after the last general election, which was the Tories' best year since the late Seventies. Then, the Tories won a national equivalent share of the vote of 45 per cent, 15 points ahead of Labour. Last year, the Tory share of the vote was 25 per cent - fully 22 points behind Tony Blair's "new" Labour.

With the local election campaigns due to start next week, Mr Ashdown has lodged a formal complaint with the BBC and ITV over the convention that the right to the last party political broadcast before polling day should alternate between the Government and the official opposition.