Labour sought to compound the Government's local electionmisery yesterday with a survey suggesting that the Tories will fail to contest a third of all the seats in the 4 May contests in England and Wales.
Frank Dobson, shadow environment secretary, said the exercise showed that many Tories had given up or were standing as independents "in an effort to shelter from voters' wrath".
He claimed the survey showed there were Tory candidates standing for 7,001 of the 10,595 vacant seats, while Labour was standing in 8,511 and the Liberal Democrats in 6,418. The survey report cites difficulties for the Conservatives in Knowsley, where 11 Tories are standing for 23 seats; Barnsley, where two Tories are competing in a contest for 20 seats; and Sunderland, where the party has 17 candidates for 26 seats.
After the humiliation in Scotland, the Tories were "giving up" in Wales by contesting only 21 per cent of seats on the new unitary authorities, the report said.
Other examples in the report include: Nottingham, where the a Tory agent is standing as a candidate; North West Somerset, where three Tories are standing as independents; Arun, where there are no Conservative candidates standing in Bognor for the first time; and Chichester, where Tories are standing as independents in seven wards.
Mr Dobson highlighted the Valley Hill ward in Norfolk, which includes the Royal estate at Sandringham. When nominations closed on Tuesday, even Labour candidates were unopposed in the normally rock-solid Tory area.
Local Tories were using descriptions such as "horticulturalist" and "retired tobacconist", while others had left political descriptions blank.
And just three official Conservatives had been nominated for seats on Cotswold District Council, Gloucestershire, against a total of nine current Tory councillors. Staff reported there were seven independent Conservatives standing.
Mr Dobson said prominent Norwich Tories had asked their national leaders to stay away during the elections, adding: "The Tories have become the party that dare not speak its name. Local Tories are ashamed to run under their true colours and they are keeping Cabinet ministers away for fear they will frighten the voters."
Labour said that while figures for the precise number of candidates might change, the "broad picture" would not.