The week in Westminster: Parties you can control - but not the voters

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The Independent Online
SO IT has been a poke in the eye for the control-freak tendency at Millbank. Although every party has claimed victory in the "super Thursday" elections the real winners were Dennis Canavan and Rhodri Morgan.

Mr Canavan's stunning victory at Falkirk West leaves Labour facing a nightmare by-election since he is already on record as stating that he cannot be both an MSP and a Westminster MP. His local Labour Party will certainly not put up with another candidate parachuted in from HQ.

In Wales, Labour voters protested in several constituencies against the imposition of Alun Michael. This was acknowledged by John Owen Jones, a Welsh Office minister, who admitted the party had been given "a bloody nose".

In England, William Hague can breathe a - temporary - sigh of relief after the local authority elections. Although his spin-doctors are claiming success in regaining 1,200 of the 2,000 seats lost in 1995, he should be terrified. For an opposition party to be behind in mid-term local elections is unprecedented.

Compare his position with the mid-term opinion polls and local election results in previous parliaments. Margaret Thatcher had a 12 per cent lead in 1977; Michael Foot was 3 per cent ahead in 1981; Neil Kinnock had a 3 per cent lead in 1985 and 7 per cent in 1989, while Tony Blair had a 20 per cent lead in 1995.

For the Liberal Democrats the man of the moment is the Orkney and Shetland MP Jim Wallace, who will have almost as much power as Donald Dewar. The Liberal Democrats are determined to win a formal coalition with Labour, and that would see Mr Wallace given executive responsibility.

He won't want to stand on the sidelines and even Mr Dewar must surely want the security of a regular majority in the Scottish Parliament for an agreed programme.

First price to be demanded will be an end to tuition fees for students in Scotland, increasing the prospect of students from England beating a path north of the border. This will cause a headache to David Blunkett as he tries to defend the fees in England - on the back of Scottish Labour MPs' votes in the Westminster division lobbies.

While the Scottish National Party performed respectably, its result was a far cry from the hype of a year ago. The knives are out, inside the party, for Alex Salmond, and many are blaming him for blowing the campaign.

He began with a disastrous political broadcast on the Kosovo crisis when he opposed the Nato campaign. His decision to oppose the Government's reduction of income tax was also a blunder and the air is expected to be thick with recriminations.

Margo MacDonald, a former Westminster MP and newly elected MSP, is expected to be an early challenger in any leadership struggle.

NORTHERN IRELAND party leaders were in and out of Downing Street on Thursday evening - including the Rev Ian Paisley who was wearing dark glasses to hide a black eye. In the midst of the bustle, a nattily-dressed gentleman sashayed out of No 10 with a gorgeous blonde in a short skirt and big hair-do. Heads turned as the man was revealed as Ralph Lauren, escorted by his wife. They had been visiting Cherie Blair. Expect even more elegance from the Cherie wardrobe.