Local Government Elections: Lib Dems storm the town halls: Hundreds of seats fall to Liberal Democrats as the Tory rout adds to doubts over Major's leadership

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The Liberal Democrats last night made sweeping local election gains across the country on a night of deepening gloom for the Government as its worst fears were confirmed by a swath of losses throughout the Tory heartlands.

With Labour largely preserving the high base it built in 1990, the Liberal Democrat gains of more than 300 seats will compound the severe tensions within the Tory party over John Major's leadership, leaving him with the shakiest of electoral platforms from which to fight the even more critical European Parliament poll on 9 June.

Tory seats in the South and Labour seats to the North fell victim to a Liberal Democrat surge which saw Paddy Ashdown's party take control of Eastleigh, all but guaranteeing victory in the crucial parliamentary by-election in the Hampshire constituency next month.

But in one of the most ominous signs for Mr Major and his administration, Labour gained 10 seats to take control of the outer London borough of Croydon, which had been in Conservative hands for 116 years. The loss of Croydon, widely attested to be a popular and well- run council, demonstrated that it was the party's national performance and the Government's deep unpopularity which lost the day for the Tories.

All the signs were that Labour had inflicted serious losses in the capital's outer ring, making deep inroads in Ealing, Redbridge, Barnet and Bexley. But the Liberal Democrats also made significant gains in the key London battleground, taking control of Kingston and depriving Labour of it in Waltham Forest. The signs were also deeply ominous for Labour in Lambeth, where Steve Whaley, leader of the controversial council, lost his seat.

And while the Conservatives' were relieved to hold the flagship borough of Wandsworth, Labour also took Enfield. The Tories also lost overall control of Basildon, the stronghold of Essex man, as results in the South-east suggested voters were ignoring local issues and turning against the Tories as a punishment for the recession and tax

increases.

Labour held many of the gains it made after its spectacular campaign in 1990. Dashing ministerial hopes that the Tories would make inroads in the West Midlands, Labour comfortably held Birmingham, gaining the middle-class suburb of Edgbaston, and took Wolverhampton. In another Midlands success, Labour won control of Derby. But in parts of the North, the Liberal Democrats made notable gains from Labour as well as the Tories, depriving Labour of control in Oldham, and also won control of Congleton, Cheshire and gained two seats in Labour's Cleveland stronghold of Hartlepool.

Although Liberal Democrat gains had been expected, given the party's relatively poor showing in 1990, the results were a massive boost for the party as it goes into the European elections, confidently expecting to win seats for the first time.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats tied in Liverpool. The Broad Left splinter group lost seats to official Labour, and Liberal Democrats gained one seat.

Labour consolidated the gains that it made in 1990 and held on to Reading, Oxford, Sunderland and Leeds. The party also won control of Wolverhampton and Barrow-in- Furness, taking seats from the Conservatives.

Low turnouts in Tory strongholds among 198 councils throughout Britain where 5,000 seats were being contested damaged the chances of the party gaining back many of its losses of 1990.

Even the Tories' Home Counties power bases were not safe - they lost control of Hertsmere, Hertfordshire. Best of all for the jubilant Liberal Democrats, the Tories lost Tunbridge Wells and Worthing.

In Tower Hamlets, east London, the Liberal Democrats conceded that they had lost control to Labour which successfully fought off a strong challenge from the far-right British National Party.

Liberal Democrat president Charles Kennedy said: 'This is more than a protest. This is a big thumbs-up for the Liberal Democrats. People like our political style and our commonsense policies. This proves we are establishing our position as a national party, retaining and winning control of councils and becoming the main challengers both to the Conservatives and Labour in their heartlands.'

Sir Norman Fowler, the Tory chairman, admitted the results were 'disappointing' but insisted they had not threatened Mr Major's leadership: 'He is there and the referendum on the Prime Minister was the 1992 general election.'

Ministers last night took most comfort that in many councils low turnout appeared to mean that traditional supporters were staying at home rather than defecting to opposing parties. Virgina Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, predicted that they would return by the general election.

John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, told BBC TV's Newsnight: 'It is a mid- term election at the end of a very bad recession.

'I have to say that it's very much the kind of result which many other countries would have been very pleased to have had at the end of a recession because. It will be followed by an increasingly good Conservative result.'

Later Mr Gummer said: 'Tories are not going out to vote in the way they normally do. It will be a hard fight-back, but it is perfectly clear that this is the beginning of that fight-back. We shall win the next election under John Major's

leadership.'

Labour's environment spokesman, Jack Straw, said: 'The result in Birmingham really is

spectacular.'

In Scotland, the nationalists made some early gains, taking three seats - all from independents - in Galashiels East and West and in the Highland Region, where they gained Dingwall. But Labour gained one seat in the Western Isles.

Election results, page 8

Inside Parliament, page 9

Hamish McRae, page 32

Labour by-election victory in Rotherham

Labour held Rotherham in a parliamentary by-election, with the Tory pushed into third place by the Liberal Democrat. Denis MacShane had a majority of 6,974, compared with Labour's 17,561 at the general election. Screaming Lord Sutch polled 1,114 votes, the highest ever for his Monster Raving Loony Party Result, page 8

(Photograph omitted)

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