Local Elections: Vanquished local Tories blame national disarray

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THE grassroots were seething as good councillors were lost and blue councils turned red or yellow. Welling up from the bottom of the Conservative Party was a vociferous chorus of 'it's not our fault'.

Local leaders in the Tory heartlands were united in the view that the blame for Thursday's local election disaster lay in Westminster, not in the constituencies.

Poor party management, constant bickering over Europe and squabbling over the leadership ability of the Prime Minister did the damage and are set to ruin the chances of recovery in next month's European elections, they said.

'I'm almost speechless,' said Hugh Baden, former Tory leader of Worthing council, West Sussex, which was lost to the Liberal Democrats. 'It's quite ridiculous the things that have been going on.'

Mr Baden's message was clear - in spite of mixed metaphors: 'We opened a Pandora's box when Margaret Thatcher was unseated in middle term. Once it has been unleashed its very difficult to stuff the genie back. The attitude of some people - and they are really small people - is totally irresponsible. John Major ought to slug it out until the next election.'

Deep hostility to Westminster politics was shown by Paul Clokie, former Tory leader of the London borough of Kingston, which also fell to the Liberal Democrats. He advised the Prime Minister to take an axe to the Cabinet.

'John Major should have a clear- out in the Cabinet, and John Patten should be the first to go,' he said.

Broadland District Council in North Norfolk slipped more quietly from Conservative to no overall control, but the local party was just as shocked by the national defeat.

'We are really disappointed at losing people when, in all honesty, it is not their fault,' said John Labouchere, chairman of the mid Norfolk Tories. 'The management team in Westminster is not as strong as it should be.'

The row over Mr Major's future has torn apart Luton Conservatives who are represented in Parliament by John Carlisle, the man threatening to stand against the Prime Minister to force a leadership contest in the autumn. Barry Simmons, 47, and Ian Dixon, 55, both resigned as vice-presidents, accusing Mr Carlisle of 'disloyalty'. More resignations are likely.

'The Prime Minister has many supporters within the party,' said Mr Simmons. 'We elected him because we were fed up with being handbagged by Mrs Thatcher. He has delivered all that we asked him to deliver.'

Local parties claimed optimism over revitalising their activists and supporters for the forthcoming European campaign. But Mr Braden admitted that members in Worthing were as split as the national party over what approach to take: 'We are saying to those who are not happy with 'rule from Brussels' that the way to avoid it is to have a strong Conservative voice in Europe,' he said.

Complaints and excuses were absent in the City of Westminster where the Tories easily maintained control. Patrick Evershed, a Conservative councillor, was celebrating a 9 per cent swing to the Tories in his ward and commented: 'We are more robust. We are more right- wing and more positive. That's what the electorate like.'