Voters threaten to desert Blair over crisis at Longbridge

Voters in West Midlands marginal seats gave Tony Blair a warning over the threatened job losses at Rover's Longbridge plant by deserting Labour in the local authority elections yesterday.

Ministers returned from canvassing in the region alarmed at the desertion of the voters who helped to secure Mr Blair's landslide victory in May 1997.

The ministers reported to Labour's Millbank headquarters that supporters in the West Midlands were switching to the Tories because they were angry and disenchanted with the Government. The voters were blaming ministers for not doing more to protect jobs in the area.

"I've never seen them so angry. They are saying that we haven't done enough for Rover. They are ignoring the real reasons for the problem at Longbridge and blaming the Government," said a ministerial source.

The gloomy feedback was discussed by the Cabinet yesterday when ministers held a "political session" without civil servants present. They debated how to respond to the "bloody nose" Mr Blair is expected to receive from the voters.

Margaret Beckett, Leader of the House of Commons, admitted last night that the council election results were likely to be "a bit patchy for Labour" and confirmed that the West Midlands was one of the areas where Labour was likely to do badly. "When people are unhappy, it is sometimes reflected in the way they vote. Obviously, people are worried in the West Midlands," she said.

Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, will today meet executives from the Phoenix consortium hoping to buy Rover to discuss possible rescue for the Rover plant in a buy-out from BMW.

The Government denies it is to blame for the threat to all the jobs in Rover after the collapse of BMW's negotiations with the venture capital group Alchemy.

Labour strategists had been warning that there would be a big "stay at home" abstention by Labour supporters, but they were alarmed by canvass returns showing that voters were switching across to the Tories.

The local election results in the Midlands could prove the most worrying for the Prime Minister. He once told a Labour Party conference that it was the vote for the Tories by a Midlands man with a Ford Sierra that had convinced him Labour would lose the 1992 general election, even though most polls predicted a Labour win.

So-called "Mondeo Man" - the successor to the Sierra car owner - has been seen as the vital Tory voter that Labour needs to secure to win a second term of office.

The Tories were hoping to gain more than 400 seats in the 152 councils in England where voting took place yesterday. The final score will not be known until late on Sunday night because Watford is experimenting with weekend voting in an attempt to boost the turn-out. Elections took place in 27 all-purpose unitary authorities, 35 metropolitan districts and 89 non-metropolitan districts. There were no contests in Scotland or Wales.

As the first results emerged last night, Labour officials admitted they were "on a hiding to nothing" because the party had performed well when the seats were last contested in 1996. Labour was defending 1,684 of the 3,331 seats being fought, the Tories 734 and the Liberal Democrats 729.

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