Conservatives face electoral catastrophe: Voters are set to punish the party in the European and council elections, writes John Curtice

HOW BIG an electoral disaster are the Tories facing? The local government elections are due in May, the European Parliament elections in June. The Tories have been stuck at an opinion poll rating of about 27 per cent for nine months - the worst sequence suffered by any government since records began. The never-ending stream of scandals makes a recovery all the more unlikely. (The Macmillan government recorded its worst opinion poll rating in June 1963, at the height of the Profumo affair.) Some backbenchers fear 'the Canada factor'. Could the Conservatives be wiped out as their counterparts were in Canada last year? Would John Major then have to leave public life ignominiously, as did Kim Campbell, the Canadian leader?

In London, where all the council seats are being contested, the prospects for the May elections are potentially grim. On their present national poll ratings, the Tories could lose as many as one in three of their seats and lose control of at least seven councils. Another council, Wandsworth, would be on a knife- edge. The party can be confident of retaining control only in three councils: Bromley, Kensington/Chelsea and Westminster. They would be left with about 450 out of around 1,900 seats in the capital - easily their worst position since the London boroughs assumed their present form in the 1960s.

In Scotland, too, the Government is facing disaster. On their present opinion poll form, the Tories could be reduced for the first time to the fourth largest party - behind Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Nationalists - in numbers of seats held on Scottish regional councils.

And, in the European Parliament, they are on course to lose 19 of their 32 seats. They would be left without a single seat north of Cambridgeshire and the losers would include Edwina Currie, who intends to stand in Bedfordshire and Milton Keynes. The Tories would end up with 15 out of 84 UK seats at Strasbourg, because UK representation has been increased by six.

Outside London, however, the Tory prospects for the May local elections are not nearly as bad. One-third of the seats in all the English metropolitan districts and about 120 shire districts are at stake. The Tories did so badly when these seats were last fought in 1990 that, even on their present poll ratings, they cannot do much worse. They could lose a dozen of the 100 seats they are defending in the metropolitan districts and about 50 out of 400 in the shire districts. Only one council - Stratford-on-Avon - would fall.

Yet the Canada factor remains a threat. For example, if the Liberal Democrats did better than average in the South-west, as some polls suggest they could, Tory representation in the European Parliament could be down to single figures. The biggest nightmare for Mr Major would be a repeat of the voting patterns in last year's county council elections, when Tory support fell twice as much in the middle-class wards the party was defending as in the typical working- class ward. With the opposition vote also sorting itself out - the Liberal Democrats did best in the South, Labour in the North - the result was dramatic. The Tories won over 350,000 more votes than Labour but nearly 200 fewer seats. If the same happens in this year's local elections, the Tory losses in the English provinces alone could be more than 100.

Yet a disaster for the Prime Minister is far from certain. With a bit of luck, his supporters could even present the spring and summer elections as a triumph. Suppose the Tories achieved a modest recovery between now and May - to a rating of a little more than 33 per cent perhaps - while Labour fell to little more than 40 per cent from its present rating of around 47 per cent. The Tories could then make gains outside London. They need just a 3 per cent swing from 1990 to win control of Wolverhampton and Dudley or deny Labour control of Bradford. Four per cent and Derby falls into their lap. Five per cent and they get Birmingham.

Within London the Tory losses could be kept down to just two or three councils. In the June elections, the Tories could win 30 Euro-seats - well short of anything that could be described as a disaster, much less a Canada-style rout.

Is this jump from the opinion poll ratings of the past nine months at all feasible? While the Tories, in recent years, have usually performed roughly as well as their current opinion poll ratings in local or European elections, Labour has consistently failed to do so. At the ballot-box, Labour has failed to break the 40 per cent barrier for more than 10 years.

So a Tory electoral disaster is not inevitable. Mr Major's pass mark for his spring test may be no more than 33 per cent. Difficult, but not impossible. But the easier the test, the more difficult it is to explain away failure. If the headlines after the May local elections are 'Tories suffer heavy losses', the message will be unambiguous. The party will be in its deepest trouble ever, worse than at the height of the national revolt against the poll tax. That ended Margaret Thatcher's leadership; it is hard to believe that disaster in the elections this spring would not end John Major's.

The author is senior lecturer in politics at Strathclyde University.

News
people
News
people And here is why...
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
News
i100
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
people
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsWelsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
News
Destructive discourse: Jewish boys look at anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed on to the walls of the synagogue in March 2006, near Tel Aviv
peopleAt the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Associate Recrutiment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Group have been well ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: Real Staffing Group is seeking Traine...

Year 6 Teacher (interventions)

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We have an exciting opportunity...

PMLD Teacher

Competitive: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teacher urgently required for ...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Time to stop running: At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity

Time to stop running

At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence