Relief for Blair as Tories falter

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Tony Blair avoided a bloody nose as Labour prevented a significant Tory recovery in the local authority elections in England.

On the day after Mr Blair's fifth anniversary as Prime Minister, Labour did better than expected as the Tories had a disappointing performance in their first electoral test since Iain Duncan Smith became leader.

The BBC calculated that Labour had 33 per cent of the vote, the Tories 34 per cent, and the Liberal Democrats 27 per cent. Compared to last year's General Election, Labour's vote was down 9 per cent, the Tories up 1 per cent, and the Liberal Democrats up 8 per cent.

If these figures were repeated at a general election, Labour would retain an overall Commons majority of around 20 seats. The Tories had a net control gain of seven councils, Labour a net loss of five, and Liberal Democrats picked up three overall.

The big surprise of the night was a strong showing by the far-right British National Party, which took two seats on Burnley council.

Labour was relieved by what officials called a "solid performance". The Liberal Democrat advance prevented the Tories making much progress in Labour's strongholds.

The Tories put a brave face on the results, saying that many of yesterday's contests took place in Labour's traditional heartlands. The Tories said their share of the vote was two points up on the 1998 local elections, when the same councils were last contested.

A Tory spokesman said: "This is a good, respectable result. We have matched Labour's share of the vote in its own backyard. We have plenty more work to do but it is a good start."

Tory officials conceded that Gordon Brown's Budget last month, with its £40bn injection into the National Health Service over the next five years, had been popular with traditional Labour voters.

They believe that Labour supporters were motivated to vote when the surprisingly strong performance of Jean-Marie Le Pen in the French presidential elections highlighted the dangers of not bothering to turn out.

The overall turn-out in the 174 authorities with elections was estimated at 35 per cent, higher than opinion polls had suggested and well up on the record low of 28 per cent seen at the 1998 local elections.

There was a higher turnout in councils where the BNP was standing and also in towns like Stevenage where postal voting was being trialled.

The Tories lost control in Calderdale and Worthing and failed to end Labour rule in targets such as Wolverhampton, Trafford, Bolton and Coventry. But the Tories gained control of Adur in Sussex, Havant, Shrewsbury and Atcham and Rochford.

Labour's relief was tempered by losing control of Norwich and Kingston-upon-Hull. It did badly in the east London borough of Havering, where an all-postal vote was held. Labour was down by 21 seats and the Tory total rose by 14, but the result did not give the Conservatives overall control of the council.

There was a stronger performance by Labour in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, which also held an all-postal vote. Labour took 11 of the seats up for grabs, the Tories one, and the Liberal Democrats one, leaving the make-up of the council unchanged.