'Betrayal' on taxes targeted by Blair

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The local election campaign closed yesterday with angry exchanges over tax as Tony Blair said Labour would make gains over a Government being punished for its "betrayals of the people" and as Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, insisted that the Conservatives remained "the only party of low taxation".

Mr Blair claimed the Government was now "in an advanced stage of disintegration" with its splits over Europe and divisions over the leadership as he highlighted the "betrayal"represented by 22 tax increases after John Major's election promise of year-on-year tax cuts.

He quoted the Prime Minister at the Conservative local government conference in 1992 as having said: "If you were inventing a policy to destroy confidence, where would you start? You'd start with higher taxes." Confidence had indeed been destroyed, Mr Blair said.

But Mr Major insisted that raising taxes, whether on individuals, company cars or child benefit, remained "Labour's hidden agenda". And Mr Clarke said that Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, with his pledges of low taxes and spending was "looking an increasingly lonely figure in the Labour movement" after Clare Short's comments on tax and Robin Cook's remarks on Labour's values.

Mr Brown, he said, was attempting to convince business that Labour could run the economy better than the Tories. "He doesn't convince me, and he doesn't convince them."

Labour attempted to play down the scale of its likely gains as the Liberal Democrats predicted only modest gains of 50 to 100 seats. But Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, appeared to admit that a poor result was in view for the Conservatives when he said that while "the feeling of confidence is flowing through" from this year's tax cuts, falling interest rates and lower unemployment, these "may not coincide with local elections".

Some 3,000 council seats are being contested in today's local elections, which exclude Scotland, Wales and London. The Conservatives are defending just over 1,150 seats, Labour just under 1,200 and the Liberal Democrats almost 450.

The limited nature of the contest - a third of the seats in 100 English districts, a third in the 36 metropolitan authorities, and all-out contests for 13 new "shadow" unitary authorities - means relatively few councils are likely to change control.

The parties will assess success and failure on three measures - share of the vote, seats won and lost, and council control changing hands.

If the Conservatives lose fewer than 350 seats they will have improved dramatically over their disastrous showing last year. Up to 500, they will have some limited cause for comfort - a performance better than last year's but still well behind Labour. Losses of more than 600 would first approach and then pass last year's low-water mark. Anthing above 700 would be a calamity - and likely to reopen the question of John Major's leadership.

For Labour, gains of fewer than 300 would represent a marked fall on last year's performance, while more than 500 would match their achievement.

The Liberal Democrats hope for at least 100 gains, and anything above 150 would show their vote was outstripping their opinion poll standing.

In terms of councils, a disastrous Conservative performance could see them lose all four that they control in the current contest, plus Solihull, the one they run on minority control. A good Labour performance could see them take a dozen councils from no overall control, a figure the Liberal Democrats could match if they do well. The Conservatives' best hope of a gain is Bournemouth, which was last fought last year and where a 5 per cent swing could put them back in power at the Liberal Democrats' expense.

What the results mean to John Major

Conservative Measure of Tory

losses performance

300 seats Dramatic improvement on last

year's disastrous results

500 seats Better than last year but still well

behind Labour

600 seats Tories begin to sink below last

year's low-water mark

700 seats Calamity. Question marks over

Mr Major's leadership