Labour downplays elections to protect PM

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Senior Labour figures are trying to head off demands for Tony Blair to resign if the party suffers a bloody nose at next week's local authority elections.

Labour MPs have been warned that the party could easily lose 300 seats in next week's council polls and that in a "worse case scenario" the losses could rise to 400.

Blair allies are nervous that a poor performance would provoke demands for the Prime Minister to stand down sooner rather than later by mainstream Labour MPs, as well as the "usual suspects" who have already criticised him.

In a pre-emptive strike yesterday, Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, said the local elections should not be seen as a referendum on Mr Blair. He claimed it would be "batty" to think the results would have any bearing on when the Prime Minister would leave Downing Street.

He warned Mr Blair's internal critics not to use the election outcome as an excuse to try to oust him. "The idea that the election result will have any impact on those decisions is nonsense," he said. "People will look at the result and make their own conclusions about how well we do and what we have to do to improve our performance. But I don't think party leadership is one of those factors."

A Blair aide added that it would be difficult to get a national picture from many very different contests in which the performance of the local authority would also be a factor.

Fears among Labour MPs that the "cash-for-honours" affair and job cuts in the National Health Service will damage its prospects next week were heightened by an ICM poll giving Labour its worse rating since 1987. The party is on 32 per cent, two points behind the Tories, with the Liberal Democrats on 24 per cent.

A gloomy forecast for the elections was given to the Parliamentary Labour Party's meeting on Monday by Ian McCartney, the party chairman, and Peter Watt, the general secretary. They warned that Labour could easily lose 150 seats in London, the main battleground with all 1,861 seats on the 32 borough councils being contested, and suffer a further 150 losses in other parts of the country.

Labour officials fear Mr Blair will be under pressure because the media spotlight will fall heavily on London, and fear a repeat of the party's disappointing performance in the capital at last year's general election. One party source said Labour could be hit by a "pincer movement" in different parts of London by the Tories, the Liberal Democrats and George Galloway's Respect Party.

Some Labour campaigners fear that the party will lose control of Croydon, Bexley, Hammersmith and Merton. If it does badly outside the capital, it could be ousted in Wigan, Bury and Warrington.

In an attempt to bolster Mr Blair's position, Labour will try to turn the spotlight on David Cameron, who faces his first nationwide test at the polls since becoming Tory leader. Even if the Tories make some gains, Labour officials believe the Opposition's performance will not be strong enough to show it is on course to win the next general election.

Another potential threat to Labour in east London comes from the far-right British National Party. A YouGov survey for Sky News yesterday found that a majority of people (55 per cent) back the BNP's policies, but that support fell to 47 per cent once they were linked to the party.

It found that 59 per cent supported a halt to all further immigration when they were not told of the group's association with the policy. Among those who were told that it was a BNP commitment, support for the policy was only 48 per cent.