Yellow fever is diagnosed in blue heartland

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Four years ago the Liberal Democrats cut their first yellow swathe through Guildford, the county town of true-blue Surrey.

In a political landslide, they took 10 seats from the Tories, robbing them of almost two decades of majority control of the borough council which combines the Home Counties commuter town and its surrounding villages. Last night, Jayne Marks, the Liberal Democrats' leader, was confident her party was just hours from gaining overall control.

The 1991 onslaught against the Tories was repeated in Guildford's neighbouring district councils, shattering the Conservatives' belief in their traditional heartland. In Guildford, the Conservatives were left with 20 seats to the Liberal Democrats 18. Since then, Labour, with just six councillors, has held the balance of power. For the first time the Liberal Democrats have put up candidates in every ward but one. The move follows the unexpected success of "paper" candidates at the Surrey County Council elections. "We are expecting a change," said one senior Guildford official. A local journalist said that Conservatives were "bracing" themselves for further loses.

But as she campaigned to hold her own 24-vote majority, the Conservative leader, Sarah Stewart, insisted that canvass returns were encouraging. "We expect to take four more seats than last time which would put us back in a winning position."

Guildford, in the heart of the affluent stockbroker belt, has traditionally been Tory. Every day more than half of the borough's 23,000-strong population take the half-hour train trip to London to work. Until a few years ago, it boasted the UK's highest percentage of first-class ticket holders.

Mrs Stewart insists that today's election will prove that Guildford is still Conservative at heart: the 1991 result a mere blip because elections took place a month after the delivery of the first poll tax bills. But Ms Marks says that the shift to the Liberal Democrats reflects a political change of heart, not mere dissatisfaction with the Government. Both claim that local issues, like proposed arts facilities and road pollution, are voters' main concerns, but Ms Marks admits people have to be steered through national concerns before they discuss local matters. "We are finding overwhelming disillusionment with the Government - but no great feeling for Labour."

Even Labour does not dispute that today's fight will basically be a straight two-way contest between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in a host of marginal seats. Mrs Stewart's majority is slim enough. But the Conservatives hold another by just 12 votes. Despite the closeness of the contest, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories have had to be content - or relieved - with just one visit from an MP. Labour support is concentrated in two wards dominated by council housing estates. Neither the Tories nor the Liberal Democrats expect to make inroads there, but neither does Labour expect to expand. John Woodhatch, chairman of the Labour group: "There are seats to be had, but we have probably missed an opportunity."

A Liberal Democrat victory would be humiliating for the Conservative Party. And it would rob local Labour politicians of their short-lived role as power brokers. The relationship between Labour and Liberal Democrats in Guildford would dismay those who lobby for anti-government pacts at the next general election.

According to one local commentator, Labour seems to dislike the Liberal Democrats more than the Conservatives, and has not voted with the Liberal Democrats any more often than with the Tories.