Stricken Tories find no Southern comfort

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Bournemouth, Poole, Brighton and Hove, three South-coast towns which the Conservatives promoted as their best hope for signs of a Tory revival, failed to deliver on Thursday.

With the elections for new shadow unitary authorities, the seats were being contested on last year's results - the Conservatives' worst ever in local government - rather than the high of 1992, on which most of Thursday's poll was fought.

But in Bournemouth, rather than taking control again of a town that had been true blue for a century up to 1991, the Conservatives took a net loss of two.

In Poole, they merely stood still, sticking on 13 seats as the Liberal Democrats gained five - three new seats plus one gain from Labour and one from an independent.

In Brighton and Hove, Geoffrey Theobald, the likely Conservative group leader, claimed a 2 per cent swing back to the Tories. But they still lost seven seats to Labour's nine gains. Steve Bassam, Labour's leader in Brighton, retorted that "54 seats out of 78" - Labour's position on the new authority - "is a landslide in anybody's terms".

Bournemouth held its own disappointment for the Liberal Democrats, who failed by one seat to turn their minority control into full control. A revived Labour vote produced a Conservative gain in one ward at the Liberal Democrat's expense.

In neighbouring Poole, however Labour lost a seat to the Liberal Democrats.

The result leaves the Liberal Democrats poised to take the new parliamentary seat of Mid Dorset and North Devon, to be contested by Alan Leaman, the party's director of strategy.

Further along the coast, Central Office's hopes of a revival faired no better. Labour held Portsmouth and in Hastings the Tories suffered a wipeout, losing their last five seats to the Liberal Democrats.