Local Elections: Tory chiefs ready for big losses: London councils are most likely to change hands tomorrow. Martin Whitfield reports on a 'retreat'

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Indy Politics
TORY party managers are bracing themselves for a bruising defeat in tomorrow's local elections, with councils in the London suburbs most at risk.

Seats will be lost in a ring of London boroughs from Harrow and Barnet in the north to Kingston and Croydon in the south, although the result is not expected to be the disaster predicted by some opinion polls. Outside London, the Liberal Democrats are preparing to take over as official opposition in a number of northern metropolitan districts, such as Sefton and Sheffield.

'It's a retreat, not a rout,' was the unoffical comment of one worker at Conservative Central Office. The continuing bickering among their ministers and MPs has left local candidates defensive on the doorstep.

Although the numbers of seats lost are not likely to look substantial on paper, the Tory performance has to be set against the party's poor results in 1990, the last time the electors in the corresponding areas went to the ballot box.

At that time Labour was even further ahead in the opionion polls amid the unpopularity of the poll tax. The party's victory was seen as unrepeatable.

Labour opened its campaign last month with a deeply pessimistic prediction that the party would lose 200 seats from the high point of 1990. The forecast was based on the fact that in the metropolitan districts, Labour was defending 80 per cent of the seats to be contested and could not be expected to make further advances.

Jack Straw, environment spokesman, was coy about making predictions yesterday. Much of Labour's campaigning has been on national issues and the obvious verdict the vote will deliver on John Major and his government. Local Tories have been keen to emphasise their reputation for low-spending authorities and low local taxes.

Labour is hopeful of winning Enfield and Ealing in London and retaining control of Birmingham. Croydon is also within striking distance, although the borough has always been Conservative. Brent should return to Labour but the local Tories are fighting hard on its reputation as a centre of left-wing politics.

An opinion poll in Tower Hamlets has raised expectations that Labour could, after 10 years, retake that borough from the Liberal Democrats.

Revenge for the Liberal Democrats could come in Southwark and Lambeth, where Labour is under attack, while the party is hopeful of ousting the Tories from Kingston and depriving them of control in Harrow.

Green Party candidates are standing in 580 seats, but are unlikely to repeat their peformance of 1990, when the party polled 6.5 per cent of the vote outside London and 9.5 per cent in the London boroughs.