Councils fear protest vote: Labour and the Liberal Democrats look set to win control in London boroughs

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GRAHAM BULL, the Tory leader of Ealing council in west London, is clear where the blame would lie if his group loses control in next week's local elections.

With just seven days' campaigning left, Conservative canvassers are still trying to ram home the message that the elections have nothing to do with the national record of John Major and his government but are all about prudent local administration.

'If we were to lose Ealing, and I'm not saying we will, it would be through no fault of our own,' Mr Bull declared.

'There is a disaffection with the national government. People are saying that they are not going to vote Conservative as they are going to register a protest. We just have to say that if you vote Labour on 5 May, John Major will still be Prime Minister and do you really want the Labour Party back locally?'

Ealing was the one straight Tory gain in London in the 1990 elections after a 65 per cent rates rise by Labour killed off its chances of re-election. A swing of 0.1 per cent is all Labour needs to take it back.

The doorstep tactic of diverting attention away from national issues is the same across London as Tories struggle to avoid a humiliating drubbing by Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

But, as any self-respecting Tory will say, a national opinion poll lead of more than 20 points for Labour counts for very little in the complex world of local politics. The party still sees its strongest hand in holding up the past excesses of Labour councils in Lambeth, Brent and Ealing.

Success in the capital is essential for the Conservative Party. A heavy defeat would increase the pressure in June's European elections and threaten the security of more backbench MPs.

But majorities are at risk in Harrow and Kingston from the Liberal Democrats, and in Croydon, Barnet, Enfield, Brent and Ealing from Labour.

Ralph Bancroft, heading the Liberal Democrat campaign in Harrow, said the party was biting deep into the support of 'hard-core Conservatives', who were saying they were ready to change their vote.

'Past evidence suggests that two-thirds will stay at home. But some will vote for us,' he said. A change of two or three seats will mean a hung council.

Labour is predicting victory in Enfield, which elected three Tory MPs in the last general election, including Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the party's campaign manager for London, and Tim Eggar, Minister for Energy. Labour needs a swing of under 1 per cent compared with the result in 1990.

'We are very confident,' said Peter Nickals, the party's agent. 'People have had enough. There are national issues like VAT on fuel and tax and the local Conservatives had cut back so much on local services.'

Few Tories in the outer ring of councils expect to do well. Keeping control and limiting the damage is the objective, not winning seats.

Dudley Mead, a Conservative councillor in Croydon, where a swing of about 3 per cent would give Labour control, said the party's biggest problem would be getting its voters to turn out.