Tories brace for major losses in local elections amid dismay over Ukip growth

 

Deputy Political Editor

The Conservatives are braced for hundreds of losses in the 2 May local elections amid signs of disarray over how to counter the growing threat from the UK Independence Party.

Although it is likely to win a relatively small number of seats, Ukip has hopes of coming third ahead of the Liberal Democrats in the overall share of the vote.

Senior Tories fear that a strong showing by the anti-European Union party will deprive them of many seats by attracting disillusioned former Conservative voters.

In a final round of interviews ahead of polling yesterday, David Cameron could not even bring himself to mention Ukip by name and declined to attack it, but the Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned the party as "clown-like".

Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, insisted he was relaxed about the onslaught by other parties and added: "Keep it coming boys." He said: "Every time we get an insult from a senior Tory, it helps us."

Mr Farage also defended a candidate pictured making a supposed Nazi-style salute, explaining that he was reaching out to grab a camera from someone taking a photograph.

The Tories have been dismayed by the extent to which Ukip, a fringe party attracting just five per cent of the vote a year ago, has dominated the build-up to today's contests. They have launched a concerted drive to highlight the backgrounds of some of Ukip's candidates.

Tory headquarters has instructed activists to warn wavering electors that they are effectively lending their support to Labour by voting for Ukip.

Some local Tory groups are taking more dramatic action to stem the tide of support for Nigel Farage's party. In Barrow, Cumbria, activists have printed leaflets in Ukip colours berating the party over the record of its Euro MPs.

Election experts predict the Conservatives will lose around 310 of the 1,485 seats they are defending, many of which they captured four years ago at the depth of Labour's unpopularity under Gordon Brown.

Conservative sources are steeling themselves to lose at least that number - and perhaps closer to 400 seats. Higher numbers of losses could reignite dissent within the party's ranks over Mr Cameron's leadership.

The Prime Minister moved to play down expectations yesterday as he pointed out that the Tories were defending far more seats than other parties and acknowledged that "everyone is having a shot at us".

He said: "It's mid-term, the Government has had to make difficult decisions, we're responsible for making a series of difficult cuts and difficult choices. I think people understand that, but often it's not welcome and often it can lead to people feeling frustrated."

Mr Hague echoed an attack on Ukip by Kenneth Clarke, the Tory Chancellor, who this week described its leading figures as "clowns".

The Foreign Secretary said: "When you look at the financial commitments... you can see why a former chancellor thinks they have a clown-like aspect."

Labour are tipped to make about 350 gains in the elections, recapturing several councils which it lost four years ago, including Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.

It will also look to make limited gains in the South of England, although it points out Labour attracted just nine per cent of the vote in the region when the seats were last contested.

Speaking in Derbyshire, Mr Miliband said: "These are county council elections, often taking place in previously Conservative areas. We obviously want to make gains in these elections. I think really important for us, though is to say: Labour councillors can make a difference even in tough times."

The Liberal Democrats aim to limit their losses to fewer than 100 seats and to hang on to council seats where they have a strong local base. They hope to perform strongly in Northumberland, where it is the largest party on the county council, in Somerset and in Cornwall.

TORIES DEFENDING MORE THAN 1,400 SEATS

More than 2,300 seats are up for grabs in Thursday’s local elections in 35 councils.

Nearly three-quarters are in 27 English county councils and another six in English unitary authorities. The Welsh authority of Anglesey is holding elections, while one-third of the seats on Bristol council are being contested.

Voters in London and most of the country’s big cities do not go to the polls.

Many of the councils staging elections tend to be in the Tory rural and suburban heartlands and the party’s dominance over them was reinforced by Labour’s unpopularity when they were last contested in 2009.

As a result, the Tories are defending more than 1,400 seats – and control of 29 authorities.

The Conservatives are putting up 2,263 candidates, Labour 2,168 candidates and the Liberal Democrats 1,763 candidates.

The UK Independence Party is fielding 1,745 candidates, three times as many as four years ago, and the Green Party 893 candidates.

Labour is tipped to make about 350 gains in the elections, recapturing several councils, including Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.

The Liberal Democrats aim to limit their losses to fewer than 100 seats and to hang on to council seats where they have a strong local base. They hope to perform strongly in Northumberland, where it is the largest party on the county council, in Somerset and in Cornwall.

There are also elections to choose a mayor in Doncaster (currently an independent who is a former member of the Right-wing English Democrats) and North Tyneside (currently a Conservative).

A parliamentary by-election is taking place in the safe Labour seat of South Shields, where Ukip has hopes of coming second. The by-election was triggered by the resignation of the former Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, as an MP.

Nigel Morris

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