Conservatives celebrate as their comeback gets under way in the neat semis of suburbia

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Indy Politics

In the pavement cafés of Southgate yesterday, there was an extra topic amid the small talk about fast cars and whether Arsenal will win the FA Cup: the return of suburban London to the Conservatives.

Four years ago, the re-election, with an increased majority, of the Labour incumbent Stephen Twigg in the once solid Tory seat of Enfield Southgate spurred one commentator to muse on whether "true blue" suburbia had become the heart of left-wing Britain.

Indeed, the return of the Schools minister, whose trouncing of Michael Portillo was a highlight of the 1997 election, was seen as a retrenchment of the Blairite project among the neat semis and gin palaces overlooking the golf courses that dot this north London seat.

But yesterday a very different picture emerged of the political make-up of the capital's middle-of-the-road neighbourhoods, as the Conservatives celebrated the capture of eight seats from Labour.

The victories in Enfield Southgate and Putney, as well as in constituencies ranging from Wimbledon and Hammersmith & Fulham to Hornchurch and Croydon Central, were all the more worrying for the Labour hierarchy because they occurred with an average swing of 7.4 per cent and, in at least five cases, could not be put down to the transfer of Labour votes to the Liberal Democrats.

The capital also provided the best regional performance for Mr Howard's party, scoring an average swing away from Labour of 4.9 per cent, compared with the national average of 3.3 per cent.

Justine Greening, the accountant who delivered the first big Tory scalp of election night by taking Putney from the Labour incumbent, Tony Colman, who memorably defeated David Mellor in 1997, put down her 2005 triumph to "local issues" such as the spending policies of Ken Livingstone.

Speaking shortly before a visit by Mr Howard to her new seat to announce his resignation, Ms Greening, tipped to be a new star in the Tory firmament, said: "We have a London mayor who is noticeably taxing the electorate more and delivering little in return. We have run a positive campaign, not only on national issues but also on local issues and that has been well received on the doorstep."

On the streets of these constituencies, united across a crescent of north and west London by the north- and south-circular roads, the signs were that a different set of priorities is the more likely cause of the Conservative revival.

They are priorities which, on the whole, have little connection with the anti-war sentiments that holed Labour below the water line in other London seats such as Bethnal Green.

David Alphonse, 47, a construction manager sipping a lunchtime beer outside an Italian restaurant on Southgate high street, had switched from Labour to the Conservatives. Breaking away from a discussion about the merits of playing Thierry Henry on the Arsenal left wing, he said: "Two things changed my mind - immigration and taxes. I feel criminalised just by saying I'm worried about the numbers of people coming here from abroad.

"If they come to work, fair enough, but I see numbers of them hanging around and I don't think we've got a grip on it. At least the Tories were prepared to tackle it head on and lower the tax burden, which is putting me out of business."

Certainly, Mr Alphonse is no white bigot or Little Englander. A black Jamaic-an, he came to Britain as a child and his business employs five people, three of them recently arrived Poles. He is also just the type of supporter that the all-new, more inclusive Tory party has been at pains to attract.

But a straw poll of other Tory voters in the former redoubt of Mr Twigg suggested Thursday night's triumphs were just as much due to the resurrection of the party's core vote.

Emma Shanks, 72, a retired teacher, displayed a poster in support of Enfield Southgate's new Conservative MP, David Burrowes.

She said: "I have been a Conservative all my life, but I didn't have a poster in 2001 or 1997. I felt Conservatism had lost its way and its credibility. But this time around they were clear and dynamic. I had a positive reason to vote for them. I'm glad to see Mr Howard doing well, because it puts a balance back into politics that has been missing."

This is a low-level war of political attrition that will continue unabated but, for some, doubts still remain about the true nature of Conservative politics.