'Launch pad' no guarantee of general election win

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Conservatives celebrated significant gains in the local elections yesterday, saying that they had built a "launch pad" for victory at the general election.

Conservatives celebrated significant gains in the local elections yesterday, saying that they had built a "launch pad" for victory at the general election.

Michael Howard, the party leader, hailed the results after the party gained 12 councils and more than 250 seats, but the party chairman, Dr Liam Fox, admitted it would be "absurd" to claim the poll guaranteed general election success.

The party was, however, braced for a potentially difficult time tomorrow night, when the European election results are announced - with the UK Independence Party expected to make a strong showing.

Senior officials said the party had made gains at the expense of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats and that the Government now faced a "pincer movement" similar to the two-pronged attack that helped sweep Labour to power in 1997.

Estimates put Conservative support at 38 per cent, 12 points ahead of Labour, giving what the Tories said was their best showing since the 1992 local elections. Tory gains included taking Thurrock from Labour, winning Brentwood from no overall control and gaining Trafford, a crucial urban council of the type the party must win.

Rossendale, Horsham, Eastbourne, Worthing and Swindon all also fell to the Conservatives. In Wales, the party secured control of Monmouthshire, which has not been Conservative-controlled since its creation.

Elsewhere, Conservative gains denied the Liberal Democrats overall control at Cheltenham and Winchester.

Speaking outside Trafford Town Hall, Mr Howard said: "When I became leader, I said we would become a party for all Britons and all Britain. After last night, that is now the case. Britain is a great country, but we could be doing so much better."

Dr Fox, the co-chairman, said "I don't for a minute say that the result today would guarantee the Conservatives winning a general election, that would be absurd ... but it's good progress."

The Tory Central Office said: "These elections were supposed to be a staging post and we have made pretty good gains and are well on the road to winning the next election. There's a year to go and we have a lot of policies to unveil in the meantime."

The spokesman rejected suggestions that the party had done no better than under William Hague in 2000, arguing that the 12 per cent lead over Labour was double that of 2000 and the biggest since 1992.

The party is, however, under intense pressure over Europe. Michael Heseltine, the former deputy prime minister, signalled potential trouble ahead in an interview yesterday. He told GMTV there was a "steam-roller" pushing the Conservatives towards Euroscepticism. European governments would not permit the Conservatives to renegotiate Britain's membership of the EU, he said, urging Mr Howard to resist the pressure.

"Trying to get selected as a Tory candidate today, if you have anything to do with the traditions of the Conservative Party in Europe over the last 50 years, it's very difficult. Michael's trying to balance it but the momentum is there," he said.