Hanley gaffe over `corrupt' councils

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Jeremy Hanley, the Tory party chairman, added to his reputation for fumbling yesterday when he tripped up at the launch of his campaign for the May local elections by accusing Labour councils in general of corruption.

The Conservative plan to start the fight for the local elections with a co-ordinated onslaught on alleged Labour sleaze in Birmingham City Council backfired when Mr Hanley told a news conference at Conservative Central Office: "Labour local government tends to be corrupt. It tends to serve the wrong interests - it doesn't serve the consumer, it doesn't serve the local resident."

Mr Hanley implied that John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, was about to produce evidence of corruption in the Commons debate on Birmingham later that morning: "We've got a classic example coming up this morning in the debate in the House of Commons - we can produce for you the evidence of what is happening in local government throughout the United Kingdom."

Mr Gummer immediately contradicted him: "I treat the allegations against the Birmingham council in exactly the same way as I treated the allegations against Westminster. People are innocent until proven guilty."

When Mr Hanley was asked if he had any evidence of corruption in Labour councils, he said: "Watch this space."

Frank Dobson, Labour's environment spokesman, urged him to withdraw his "disgusting slurs" and challenged him to give "any specific evidence of corruption" to the police.

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: "Jeremy Hanley should be very careful about throwing mud. I expect to see much more extensive use of negative campaigning techniques imported from the US. When the Tories get desperate they are dangerous."

Mr Hanley has caused sharp intakes of Tory breath before - he described a riot at a boxing match as "exuberance", and said "We all now hope that's it" after a recent interest-rate rise. MPs are privately speculating about who might succeed him in a summer reshuffle.

Yesterday's campaign launch was the earliest ever for local elections, and weeks before either Labour or the Liberal Democrats plan to start their campaigns. It was designed to set the agenda, but instead of reporting the Tory message - Conservative councils cost you less ("Vote for Value") - broadcasters spent the day reporting charge and counter-charge.

The Tories face one of their most difficult local elections of recent years. A BBC analysis suggested they might lose 1,350 seats, on the basis of opinion polls and by-election results, while other estimates suggest they could lose 2,000 seats and be pushed into third place behind the Liberal Democrats in the total number of seats held.