Mayor gallops to cast rescuing vote

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The Independent Online
When the Magna Carta, the great charter of liberties, was signed in Runnymede in 1215, there was so much worry over "the abuses of local government" that a special clause was demanded by the barons. Yesterday, 781 years on in Runnymede, they were still worrying about local government.

True-blue Surrey, redolent of gins and tonics, gymkhanas, fine golf clubs, pop stars' palaces, and the cricket and warm beer of village greens so beloved of the Prime Minister, had unthinkably almost lowered the Tory flag of control.

Only the casting vote of the Tory Mayor of Runnymede will now ensure the party's control. In two key wards of the 13 contested on Thursday, Labour lost by a total of only 24 votes. "It was sickening for us really," said Rodney Pate, leader of the Labour group in Runnymede.

In this part of world the Labour Party don't normally choose council candidates, they send out a search party. The Tories' loss of two wards, with Labour gaining two, means the new council is now made up of 21 Tories, 14 Labour, six independents and one Liberal Democrat. A new mayor will be elected on 14 May.

If the Conservative's national party chairman, Brian Mawhinney, is still struggling to see the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel today, he could do no better than telephone Howard Langley, Runnymede's council leader. Mr Langley spent most of yesterday with his calculator. The result of his digital arithmetic was, he said, good news.

The end of an era? Mr Langley will have none of it. Without mentioning losses he said: "Two years ago we won five seats, last year we won seven seats, this year we won nine seats. Anyone who is writing off the Conservatives is a fool.

There will be warm beer and cricket at Englefield Green where the grass is being prepared for the village cricket season and even if Tories all over the country are drowning in tears, Mr Langley is set to open the bubbly. "[Runnymede] Conservatives did brilliantly," he said in his best Dunkirk voice. "Our overall vote went up by 3,000 to 11,000 votes; our overall percentage of the vote went up from 74 to 76 per cent. If this is meltdown, then gee whizz, who is kidding who?" And there was a message for Mr Mawhinney; Mr Langley insisted the Tories' campaign was positive. "We never fought on reasons why [voters] should not vote for the others. We fought on what the reasons were to vote for us."

Labour, as almost-but-not-quite losers sometimes do, blamed anything. Mr Pate said Labour had too few troops on the ground, and claimed the Tories fought a "dirty" leafleting campaign.

And in Virginia Water, home to Wentworth Golf Club with its "Burma Road" course and surrounding mansion estate, the Labour vote actually tripled from around 30 votes to just over 100.

"Is that all we got?" asked Mr Pate. "We were hoping for more, but I suppose when the constituency is divided into the wealthy and the very wealthy, you can't call that a natural Labour seat, can you?"