Leading Article: Tory slaughter will stir the lynch mob

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a disastrous night for the Tories. Their local election defeat was worse even than the slaughter inflicted in 1990 after the poll tax debacle. Driven into third place behind the Liberal Democrats in overall votes, the party came a humiliating fourth in Scotland. This is the most unpopular government since the Second World War. Disunited, accident- prone and directionless, it has tarnished even worthy Tory councils with failure. Most spending by local authorities is now in the hands of opposition parties.

Yet no psephologist would confidently rule out a Conservative victory in the next general election. The Prime Minister's future must be more doubtful. The Tories have nearly three years to save themselves; Mr Major is running out of time. He can take comfort in polls suggesting that none of his colleagues is likely to transform Tory fortunes. He may rightly believe that he can lead the party to a fifth general election win. But a lynch mob is gathering among backbenchers. Mr Major has perhaps six months to raise his standing - too short a time for the gathering economic recovery to offer political dividends, but long enough for further rot to set in.

The Tories stand little chance of rallying their faithful for next month's European elections. Far less is at stake for activists, many of whom regard their MEPs as having gone native on over-generous expense accounts. A Labour landslide looms, alongside the first election of Liberal Democrats. Mr Major faces another massive defeat in the Eastleigh by-election.

Yesterday he promised to 'meet any challenge' following John Carlisle's threat to provoke a leadership contest. The Prime Minister's ace is to convince the anxious middle ground of the party that all hell would be let loose by an ugly battle. He must, then, hope that they shrink from that conflict. But like Margaret Thatcher before him, his fate finally rests with the Cabinet. If key ministers withdraw support, he is finished. Much depends on practised prime ministerial assassins such as Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine. Will they judge their careers to be advanced by wielding the knife sooner rather than later?

As observers of such manoeuvrings, Labour and the Liberal Democrats feel gleeful. Paddy Ashdown's triumph on Thursday was to break yet further into the heartlands of the two main parties. In the north the Liberal Democrats can claim to be supplanting the Tories as the party of opposition, just as they have done to Labour in the south.

Meanwhile, John Smith should be well pleased that his party built on advances achieved at the height of the poll tax row and from which Labour might have expected some respectable retreat. Success in London demonstrated that the party has at last shaken off its loony left image everywhere except Lambeth and Brent.

Yet both parties should beware of complacency. Labour MPs from red Scotland may be tempted to think that Downing Street is theirs for the taking and that any nonsense about co-operating with the Liberal Democrats can be swept aside. They are mistaken. Labour's share of the vote and its lead over the Tories was well down on the opinion polls. The scale of its victory in the Rotherham by-election was less than overwhelming. In short, the pro-Labour vote does not look solid.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats must realise that their electoral fortunes are symbiotically linked. The Liberal Democrats will not keep their new supporters if those voters are scared back to the Conservatives for fear of electing a high-taxing Labour government by default. Likewise, Labour is highly unlikely to win power without a Liberal Democrat breakthrough in Tory strongholds.

The opposition parties must eschew euphoria. They should remember that the Tories still have economic recovery on their side, the chance to make pre-election tax cuts, plus the ability to change their leader. Come the general election, the Conservatives will still be formidably difficult to beat.