`Meltdown' fear puts Major in firing line

TORIES IN CRISIS: Scottish victories inspire Labour and Liberal Democrats for repeat in May
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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

After Thursday's disastrous local election results in Scotland, the Conservatives now face precisely the "meltdown" in England and Wales on 4 May which they fear will again call into question John Major's leadership.

The Conservatives' worst ever showing in Scottish local elections points to a record-breaking wipe-out on a much larger scale south of the border.

Equally, Labour's best-ever result in Scotland heralds unprecedented victories across the nation.

The Conservative share of the vote hit an all-time low of 27 per cent in last year's English and Welsh local elections a week before John Smith's death. Labour scored 42 per cent - its highest since the SDP breakaway in 1981. Since then, Labour under Tony Blair has been riding even higher, not just in opinion polls, but also in council by-elections.

This year, what remains of the Conservative Party in local government is marching towards the machine guns in the electoral equivalent of the fields of Flanders. Conservative councillors facing re-election next month have lived a charmed life hitherto. The last time their seats were contested in the four-year cycle was 1991, when the two main parties were running neck and neck in the opinion polls. Before that, their seats were contested in the general election victory years of 1987, 1983 and 1979.

Worse, there are 12,000 seats being fought on 4 May - far more than in any other year. The Conservatives hold about 4,000 of those seats, and some estimates suggest they could lose up to 1,400.

The Scottish elections indicate this is still an underestimate, and that the Conservatives could lose as many as 2,000 seats - half of all those they are defending. This is because the Liberal Democrats concentrated their votes where it mattered. They won more seats in Scotland than the Conservatives, on a lower share of the vote.

This confirms more detailed analysis of local council by-elections, showing the remarkable and increasing ability of the Liberal Democrats to target their efforts where it counts.

The Conservatives face the loss of Trafford, in Greater Manchester, the last Tory-controlled metropolitan council. The opposition parties there need to gain four seats to deprive the Tories of their majority.

David Acton, Labour deputy leader, said yesterday: "I've been fighting elections in Trafford since 1982 and this is the best feeling I've ever had. We're finding quite a lot of Conservatives either changing or feeling they can't vote. People are warming to Tony Blair, and we certainly see him as an extremely good asset."

This could leave the Conservatives in control of only one county council, Buckinghamshire, four London councils, and a rump of English rural district councils, with nothing in Scotland or Wales. They could conceivably become the third party in local government.

Conservative MPs have got used to progressively worse local elections, and point out that they still won the general election in 1992. However, that was after a change of leader - and there is no doubt that the local 1990 elections, their "poll tax elections," convinced many MPs that Margaret Thatcher had to go.

The Conservatives' standing in the opinion polls has not changed since this time last year, while the "Blair effect" has shifted 5-6 per cent from the Liberal Democrats to Labour. But this is still bad news for Mr Major, because the Conservatives are vulnerable to Labour in three quarters of England, while the Liberal Democrats are the threat in the other quarter.

On 4 May in England most district councils have contests for all their seats. The rest, and all the metropolitan councils are electing one third of their seats. In addition there will be elections for the 17 new single- tier councils in England: the Isle of Wight and the new all-purpose councils. Of these, the Conservatives can only hope to control North West Somerset.

In Wales, the Tories face a Scottish-style lock-out from control of the 22 new all-purpose councils which replace the county and district councils next year. Only Monmouthshire and Vale of Glamorgan look winnable for them, but that was also said about East Renfrewshire, covering the posh suburbs of Glasgow, before this week. Yesterday morning, even that slipped from their grasp.

Election results, page 7