Tory party could lose 400 seats: 'Flagships' at risk - Cabinet split on Europe

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT faces disaster on two fronts it emerged yesterday: huge losses in Thursday's local government elections, and the threat that new Cabinet divisions will undermine the campaign for June's Euro-elections.

The Tories are likely to lose 400 local council seats and control of their three flagship councils in Wandsworth, Westminster and Basildon, according to a special analysis for the Independent on Sunday by Strathclyde University.

The analysis, based on averaging the results of last month's opinion polls, predicts that one in three Conservative councillors will be ejected and that the Tories will be left in control of just two councils in Greater London. Wandsworth, Croydon, Ealing, Redbridge and Brent are all likely to fall to Labour, while Westminster would become a 'hung' council. This would leave the party weaker in London local government than at any time since its reorganisation in the 1960s.

John Major's fortunes were worsened yesterday as Cabinet differences cast a shadow over the party's campaign for the European elections on 9 June.

The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, told Radio 4's Today programme that he 'very, very much' doubted that 'there will be any significant move towards a single currency in my political lifetime'. But, at a Westminster press conference, John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, said that Britain had 'no intention of either being outside Europe or being a second class member of the EU'.

Mr Howard said that he did not think 'there is any question of our leaving the European Community' but added that, in the event of a disagreement between the Government and its partners on an issue, Britain would 'exercise our veto against changes we didn't like'.

Mr Gummer declined to be drawn about a single currency but added: 'We want to be in the centre. Don't put us in the sidelines'. The row was provoked by the former Conservative Cabinet minister and European Commissioner, Sir Leon Brittan. He said that a single currency by 1999 was not unrealistic. Sir Leon, Downing Street's candidate to succeed Jacques Delors as European Commission President, was strongly criticised by other senior Conservatives. John Watts, chairman of the Commons Treasury Select Committee, said: 'It merely indicates how out of touch the European Commissioners are with the realities within the EC.'

While senior Tory sources insisted that Downing Street's redrafting of the party's Euro- election manifesto was simply 'fine-tuning' its date of publication remained unclear.

Mr Major said on Friday that the manifesto would be produced 'within a few days', but Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman, said it would be published after the local elections, probably in mid-May.

A leading Euro-sceptic, William Cash, MP for Stafford, accused the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, of not involving the Euro-sceptics in drawing up the manifesto.

A poor Tory performance in the local elections on Thursday is bound to affect party morale for the poll on 9 June. Most of the projected losses are in and around the capital where the party is defending more seats than in the rest of the country put together. The Tories did so badly outside London in 1990, when the same seats were last contested, that they have little left to lose.

If London votes in line with national polls the swing from Conservative to Labour since 1990 would be nearly 10 per cent. That would mean the Tories losing 310 seats in London and Labour gaining 331, with the Liberal Democrats making net losses of 13. Nine of the 11 Tory- controlled boroughs would be lost, leaving only Bromley and Kensington and Chelsea.

Tory campaign managers are doing little to play down speculation about the losses, with Sir Norman Fowler declining to make any predictions yesterday. This enables them to claim even the smallest success - for example, narrowly holding Westminster or Wandsworth - as a triumph.

The Agriculture Secretary, Mrs Gillian Shephard yesterday hinted at the difficulties Tory party canvassers were facing because of the 'Second Opposition' in Parliament who are underminging Mr Major.

'People are in despair. Those who knock on doors don't want to be asked all the time about the 'Conservative Opposition' in the House of Lords,' she said.

In the rest of England and Wales, where elections are being held for one-third of the seats on the 36 metropolitan districts and 114 of the non-metropolitan districts, control of Broadland, Stratford, Welwyn- Hatfield and Basildon are likely to be lost.

Further reports, page 6

Leading article, page 20