Politics: Blair is ready for mid-term struggle

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TONY BLAIR invited the voters to pass judgement on his first two years in power as he fired the starting gun yesterday for the biggest mid-term electoral test for a government in the past 25 years.

The Prime Minister made clear that Labour would fight on "big picture" issues such as health, education, the economy and cash help for families. He played down local government and Europe, even though local elections take place in 362 authorities on 6 May, and the European Parliament poll follows on 10 June.

Insisting that Labour was delivering its election pledges after taking "tough decisions", Mr Blair ordered Labour candidates to highlight the pounds 40bn cash boost for health and education, the minimum wage, the New Deal programme for the jobless, the 10p starting rate of income tax, and the biggest-ever rise in child benefit.

Mr Blair told a London press conference that Labour's achievements could be put at risk if nationalists made gains in the first elections to the new Scottish and Welsh assemblies, also on 6 May.

Admitting Labour had a fight ahead, Mr Blair said: "We have to defeat those people who want to split apart the United Kingdom, and wrench Scotland and Wales out of the UK. Devolution within the UK gives us the best of both worlds."

Although Labour is bound to suffer from the "mid-term blues" that afflict all governments, William Hague has more to lose from the May and June polls than Mr Blair. If the Tories do badly, Mr Hague could face moves to oust him this summer.

The Tories' private polls suggest that former Conservative voters who switched to Labour at the 1997 election are unimpressed by Mr Hague. The polls are in line with the findings of Labour's focus groups. A recent summary sent to Mr Blair said former Tory supporters "described the Tories as weak, faceless and lacking charisma, all connected to a perceived lack of leadership and visibility".

Another headache for Mr Hague is that Mr Blair may benefit from a "Kosovo effect" in the elections. Although the Prime Minister said yesterday the two events were "entirely separate", Tory officials say that wars usually help the government of the day.

The Tories, who originally hoped to gain between 700 and 800 seats in the local government elections, say they have now revised their target downwards to "below 400".

But Labour claims it is bracing itself for losses of between 1,200 and 1,300 seats, a more realistic estimate than the 2,000 figure originally produced by the party's headquarters.

Independent experts say the Tories need to make 1,000 gains just to perform as well as they did in their 1997 general election rout. Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher of the University of Plymouth predict that the Tories should gain 1,300 seats in England alone, with Labour losing about 1,100 and the Liberal Democrats losing about 200.

They say Labour could lose control of Sheffield, the Liberal Democrats' top target, Calderdale, Kirklees, and Trafford. Labour is also worried by the Liberal Democrat advance in Bristol.

Mr Rallings and Mr Thrasher say Labour could also be deprived of its overall majority in Milton Keynes, North East Lincolnshire, and York. Principal Conservative targets include Bromsgrove, Gedling and South Ribble. A key battleground will be Hertfordshire, where Labour could lose control in five of the six district councils it holds.

Labour officials are worried about voter apathy. Turnouts as low as 10 per cent are expected in some inner city areas, and Mr Blair is expected to seize on such a low level of interest as evidence that wide-ranging town hall reforms are needed - such as the creation of directly elected mayors.

Today the Tories will launch their campaign for the local elections by promising to stand up for "the small man" against "big government." The move is part of Mr Hague's new brand of "kitchen table Conservatism" in which his party will concentrate on the "bread and butter issues".