With support for the Conservatives in Scotland at just 14 per cent, the party, which has not controlled a regional council for eight years and holds just 54 of the 453 regional seats being contested, faces a tough fight.
Voters are angry at income tax rises, the alleged gerrymandering of local government and VAT on fuel when heating bills are 20 per cent higher than the UK average. But the main election issue is water, which stirs passions long forgotten in England and Wales, where services were privatised in 1989.
The Tories considered selling off the Scottish water industry but backed off in the face of furious opposition. Instead they propose to transfer control of services from regional councils to three publicly-owned water authorities. Two months ago, 97 per cent of people voting in a referendum organised by the regional council in Strathclyde, which has almost 50 per cent of Scotland's 5.2 million population, rejected the plan.
Despite their difficulties, leading Tories insist they will confound the pollsters as they did in the last general election, when the party increased its number of MPs from 9 to 11. Ian Lang, Secretary of State for Scotland, said: 'History is littered with dead opinion polls.'
Labour, which stands at 44 per cent in the polls, is fielding 350 candidates. The party may increase its share of the vote, but George Robertson, the shadow Secretary of State, said it would do well to hold the gains of 1990, when it took almost half of the regional seats at the height of Tory unpopularity over the poll tax.
The Scottish National Party, at 27 per cent, is fielding the most candidates - 370 - and hopes to become the biggest party in Grampian and Tayside. The Liberal Democrats' strength is in the Highlands, where it hopes to win a further eight regional seats, taking its total to 50.Reuse content