A third defeat ­ but Tories advance in the marginals and South-east

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Indy Politics

Michael Howard was the man proudly leading a Tory revival early today as the Conservatives made gains across the country, with swings of about 5 per cent from Labour in many seats. Despite going down to their third successive election defeat ­ the Conservatives' worst run of results since 1910 ­ their hopes were lifted by the swing, which relieved the pressure on Mr Howard to quit the leadership.

In addition to a boost from voters turning against Tony Blair, Conservative canvassers were reporting that the use of the immigration issue had increased support among former Labour working-class voters, despite the widespread criticism that the tactic drew during the campaign.

The Tory leader had been under pressure to equal the 209 total of seats that Labour secured under Michael Foot in 1983 ­ Labour's worst result since the Second World War ­ to prove that his party was not in terminal decline. The NOP-Mori exit poll suggested that he would achieve that target by gaining 44 seats.

The Tories knew they could not wipe out Labour's huge majority, which would have required a swing of more than six per cent, but they confounded predictions that they would lose seats. Some spectacular gains suggested that the voters who deserted the Tories in droves in 1997 in their heartlands were prepared to return. That shift could only partly be attributed to a loss of trust in Mr Blair among voters who backed Labour in 1997 and 2001.

Justine Greening was one of the early victors as she recaptured Putney, south-west London, for the Tories with a swing of 6 per cent.

The Tories also ousted the Liberal Democrat David Rendel with a six per cent swing in Newbury, Berkshire. Mr Rendel had voted in favour of the foxhunting ban and was targeted by supporters of the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance.

In Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, the Tories won a swing of seven per cent to oust the Labour MP Helen Clark, more than doubling the swing predicted in the exit poll.

There was a nail-biting recount in Shipley, West Yorkshire, where the Tories were hoping to reclaim the former Conservative seat from Chris Leslie, a junior constitutional affairs minister.

Bob Marshall-Andrews, a leading Labour rebel, said the anger against Mr Blair had cost him his marginal seat in Medway, Kent.

As Labour nerves began to jangle, Liam Fox, the joint chairman of the Conservative Party, said: "It is clear that the public want to cut Tony Blair down to size and make him more accountable."

Tory hopes were rising they could defeat Stephen Twigg, recapturing the north London seat of Enfield Southgate where Michael Portillo spectacularly lost his seat in Labour's landslide in 1997.

However, the Tories failed to recapture Southport, the upmarket West Lancashire resort, which the Liberal Democrats' John Pugh held with a 3 per cent increase in his vote. The Liberal Democrats also held on to Torbay ­ 124th on the Tory target list ­ but the swing to Conservatives was five per cent.

With many Conservatives hoping to build on last night's progress, Mr Howard is under pressure from senior Conservatives to bring back William Hague and Sir Malcolm Rifkind to frontline politics. Mr Hague, who stood down immediately after the 2001 election defeat, is thought to be ready for a return to front-line politics, while Sir Malcolm has returned to Westminster in the Kensington and Chelsea seat vacated by Mr Portillo.

"William Hague has got to make up his mind whether he is a stand-up comedian or a heavyweight politician, but we need him back," a senior Howard ally said. "If he made them shadow foreign secretary and shadow chancellor, we would have two big hitters. "

Putney Seat lost by Mellor in 1997 swings back

The Conservatives secured their first major victory over Labour with a surprise result in Putney. Justine Greening ousted Labour's Tony Colman, winning back the seat lost by the former cabinet minister David Mellor in 1997.

She defeated the backbencher, who made a fortune setting up Topshop and buying Debenhams, overturning a Labour majority of 2,771 with a 6.46 per cent swing to secure the Tories' first gain.

Ms Greening, 36, a Rotherham-born accountant, fought a campaign on local issues, such as late-night aircraft noise, and eschewed the Conservative national campaign's emphasis on immigration.

She said last night: "My own feeling was that we concentrated on what we had to offer people in terms of local issues, but also what a Conservative government had to offer."

Even though Putney was 52nd on the Conservative list of target seats, the party did not expect a victory and did not pour resources into the marginal. None of the party's Shadow Cabinet big guns visited the seat during the campaign, even though senior Labour figures descended on the suburb to defend Mr Colman's majority.

In 2002 the Conservatives won every council ward in the constituency, including the council estates of Roehampton, and the low-tax Conservative administration in Wandsworth has been popular with locals.

Mr Colman, a former director of the Burton Group and chairman of the Low Pay Unit, served for a time as parliamentary aide to Adam Ingram, the Armed Forces minister, but failed to make ministerial rank.

He made errors during the campaign, sending his Tory opponent a string of letters asking for her support, one even offering her a lift to the polling station.