Hundreds of Tories will stand as independent candidates in the elections, where 12,000 seats are at stake. In some areas, Tory candidates have adopted designations such as "horticulturalist" and "your local man" rather than "the Conservative Party candidate". In others, Labour councillors are being elected unopposed because no Tories are willing to stand.
Last week, the Tories were all but wiped out in Scotland, taking only 81 of 1,161 seats and failing to win control of any of the 29 councils.
Voting for district councils in England and new unitary authorities in Wales takes place next month. A special analysis for the Independent on Sunday by Strathclyde University concludes that the Tories will be left in control of just nine of the 326 English councils and none of the 22 in Wales. It is possible that they will suffer the ultimate ignominy of winning fewer seats than the Liberal Democrats.
Some backbench rebels believe that, if the results are as bad as predicted, a round-robin with the required 33 names calling for a leadership election can be assembled before the summer recess. That would put pressure on John Major to hold an immediate contest. "If the signatures are gathered in May," one MP said, "it becomes hard for the PM to sit there until November."
Mr Major's troubles increased yesterday when Norman Lamont, the former Chancellor, made an extraordinarily nationalistic speech, attacking Europe. A day after the Prime Minister's plea for a united party, Mr Lamont called for the European Parliament to be scrapped in its present form and for further political integration and a single currency to be ruled out.
Addressing a meeting of the Campaign for an Independent Britain, he likened the European Union to an old boys' club. "The Italians are members because they have no faith in their own institutions, the Spanish because they want to forget the past, the French because they are frightened of the Germans and the Germans because they are also frightened of the Germans."
Although he did not still blame Germany about the Second World War, he said: "I want the memory of the war to be remembered for very many years and not to be forgotten."
Calling for a nominated, rather than an elected European Parliament, Mr Lamont asked: "Does this vastly expensive, pretentious assembly, for which so few people vote, really serve any constructive purpose?"
With their party in disarray, many Tory councillors are cutting their losses. In Avon, three, including the council chairman, Ken Lacey, and the mayor-elect, are standing as independents for Woodspring District Council. Mr Lacey, a councillor for 12 years, said yesterday: "People are fed up; many Conservative voters are disenchanted."
In Oswestry, Shropshire, four Tories are standing as independents, including the current mayor, Enid Harrison. In Suffolk, David Gray, a farmer who is standing as an independent after serving as a Tory councillor, said: "I think the Conservative government badly needs a rest. They keep opening their mouths and putting their foot in it."
Throughout the Tory heartlands of Southern England - the Cotswolds, the Mendips, Suffolk, Hampshire, Sussex , Kent, Surrey - councillors are deserting the party. In Hove, East Sussex, five seats, for the first time, have no Tory candidate; in Arun, West Sussex, 10 seats.
But there are defections in the North, too. In North Yorkshire, there are no Tory candidates in seven wards. In Allerdale, Cumbria, 12 Labour councillors have been elected unopposed. In Warrington, Labour is fielding candidates in all 60 seats, the Tories contesting only 36. In Crewe and Nantwich, Cheshire, 11 Conservative councillors are standing with various titles along the lines of "local man / woman putting (name of ward) first". The Tory leader, Brian Shavington, is standing as "Shavington ward councillor since 1976".
In Gillingham, Kent, the Conservative group leader, Rodney Chambers, standing down after 16 years in local government, said: "We need a period of quiet from the national party."
Labour's environment spokesman, Frank Dobson, said:"For Conservatives local government has become a thankless task." He claimed some activists were asking ministers to stay away from campaigning.
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