Prepare for the long, bleak trudge

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Now we find out whether the Conservative Party can keep its nerve. Does the rebel right use the loss of seats to move in for the kill? Or do the battered Tories, even at this late hour, hold back and display the discipline that once made them so formidable? As the old saying goes, do they hang together, or hang separately?

Panic may prove an irrestistible temptation; it is what many modern Tories are best at. But on these figures, they shouldn't. Nothing fundamental changed last night. Despite the success of Tony Blair's New Labour and the Liberal Democrats, this hacking-down of obscure Conservative councillors tells us nothing new. The Government is very unpopular. So it was last week, too. People are using local elections less to choose new local administrations than to kick out in anger at the thin years - years of short commons and a disliked Commons. But that's exactly what they did last year - and the year before.

A party which was once proud of its strong political base throughout local government is shrivelling to insignificance in many town halls. But there is the faintest wind of advance in the Tory performance which will be hailed by the party's cheerleaders as the turning of their fortunes. It's been a bad night for the Conservatives. But not quite as bad as some other bad nights they can think of.

Before these results disappear in a welter of Westminster analysis, it is worth saying quietly that they are not particularly good news for local politics.

Will the silencing of Conservative voices in so many councils make it likelier that Labour and Lib-Dem administrations act more efficiently or responsively in a few years' time? Of course not: local government, like national government, thrives on real opposition.

That such opposition is disappearing is a direct consequence of the diminished autonomy of local government, with the hundreds of Acts of Parliament passed since 1979 removing local powers, and the capping, and the growth of the quangos. If a vote has few consequences, it is likelier to be used as a protest.

Conservative propaganda had attempted to sell the notion that a Labour vote would be expensive - a typical televison image was of pound coins gurgling down the plughole. But it was ignored. And why? Because the actions of successive Conservative Environment Secretaries and Chancellors have ensured that the cash consequences are, as compared with the Seventies or Eighties, rather small.

What of the political consequences? It is possible that restraint and self-discipline during the next 48 hours allow Brian Mawhinney and John Major the time to reassert their "steady as she goes" programme for survival - the long, slow drift towards an election next year, by which time economic recovery might be changing minds in Middle England.

Michael Heseltine's body-language and the exact tone of John Redwood's interviews today and at the weekend are among the signs to watch.

But these results will ratchet up the anti-Major hysteria and depress the Prime Minister, despite the thicker skin he has grown over the past few years. They will make October's Conservative Party conference that much harder, since yet more affronted ex-councillors will be present, looking for somebody to blame.

And there is only the slightest sign of the pro-Conservative momentum so desperately awaited by Mr Major.

Yet authority continues to drain away. And time drains too. Tory MPs will ruefully reflect that the remedy isn't in their hands. To attempt some kind of parliamentary assassination helps them not at all, and could bring down the Government. But the trudge ahead looks long and bleak.

Decline and fall of the Tories

(Vote share since 1992)