When turn-out is high, the Tories are still nowhere

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The Independent Online

"Thank God for Romsey," one of Tony Blair's close aides sighed yesterday. Surely, only a politician as lucky as Mr Blair could get such a huge fillip from his party losing its deposit?

William Hague, in contrast, must be cursing his luck even though some of his MPs are now questioning his judgment. The Tory disaster in Romsey has put a question mark over Mr Hague's brand of right-wing populism on issues such as asylum-seekers and the jailing of the Norfolk farmer Tony Martin.

A fascinating debate is raging in senior Tory circles about the rival merits of Mr Hague's strategy and the more tolerant approach favoured by Michael Portillo and Steven Norris. Without Romsey, Mr Hague could have claimed his stance was vindicated by Tories' impressive performance in the council elections. But one senior Tory MP said yesterday: "You can win like this when only one in three people vote, as they did in the council elections. Romsey shows that you can't do it when the turn-out is much higher, and this has enormous implications for the general election."

However, while the Liberal Democrats' spectacular win brought Labour some relief, Mr Blair cannot afford to gloat. He has a similar dilemma to Mr Hague over how to pitch Labour's message after the party's disappointing performance in the council polls, many of which took place in Labour's own backyard.

Mr Blair is convinced, as Gordon Brown put it, that focusing on the party's core voters would be to fall into a "Tory trap", since it would allow Mr Hague to reclaim the middle classes who deserted the Tories in 1997.

But on Thursday, Labour's supporters answered the Blairites' claim that they have "nowhere else to go". As one minister said yesterday: "They do have somewhere to go - to stay at home. And when they do, it can have a devastating effect."

No one believes that Labour is going to lose safe seats at the general election because its people abstain. But differential turn-out between the parties could prove crucial in the marginal seats that will decide the result. If Mr Hague is more successful in motivating his troops than Mr Blair, he may yet run Labour closer than the opinion polls suggest.

The Prime Minister, however, believes that Thursday's results were more about voter apathy than disenchantment with the Government. He is banking on the higher turn-out at general elections to see off the Tories, and is convinced people will vote on the economy, health and education rather than asylum-seekers, law and order, and Europe.

The remarkable display of tactical anti-Tory voting in Romsey could pose unexpected problems for Mr Hague at the general election. With the Tories out of power, there was apparently little incentive for Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters to gang up on Mr Hague, but they did. This has potentially far-reaching consequences, and may prove an important stepping stone on the road to Mr Blair's goal of a centre-left coalition that keeps the Tories out of office.

But there were ominous warnings for Mr Blair in London, not just in Ken Livingstone's victory but in Labour's worse than expected showing in the Greater London Assembly elections. Mr Blair's internal critics hope the "new politics" that now exist in Scotland, Wales and London will finally convince him to abandon the "control freakery" that contributed to Mr Livingstone's success. They will probably be disappointed.