Playing snooker at the Labour club

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The Independent Online
Take a bow, Peter Sugden. A lifelong Tory voter, Mr Sugden has provoked a row at the Selby Conservative Club (three snooker tables and beer at a pound a pint) by standing as a Liberal Democrat in last Thursday's local elections. Mr Sugden, a fish shop owner, was Piafian. "No, I've no regrets," he said. "In the past couple of months, with tax increases and £600,000 going in fat-cat handouts, it makes you wonder if it's all worthwhile." The club committee is not amused - so from next week Mr Sugden will probably have to play his snooker at the local Labour club.

And that, metaphorically, is what hundreds of thousands of his former fellow Conservative voters will now be doing. For, this weekend, all over suburban and rural England, startled new Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors will be looking at their diaries, consulting their spouses and sitting in meetings, trying to organise their lives to exercise powers they never thought they would win. They are the beneficiaries of one of the most extraordinary electoral revolts in modern times, the rising up of the Tory heartlands against their party.

All through Thursday night and the better part of Friday, pundits struggled with the scale of the Tory rout. It was worse than 1993, it was worse than 1981, it was ... Not since Ethelred's Witan of AD992 had the Conservative Party been so poorly represented in the councils of the nation. This much is certainly true: the Conservative Party - the ruling party in Britain for 77 of the past 111 years - today controls no councils in Scotland, none in Wales, no councils in any city areas outside London and just eight in the rest of England.

Although the comparison is inviting, this is not the same kind of political watershed as the Gingrich triumph in last November's US congressional elections. It does not mark a historic rejection of the right and the market in favour of more spending and bigger government. Thursday's voting, as suggested by the words of Mr Sugden, was occasioned by a weary dislike of the Government on the part of its core constituency. They have not stopped believing one thing and started believing another - they have simply stopped believing in Mr Major and his ministers.

Nevertheless, the results indicate the scale of Tony Blair's achievement as Labour leader. Had the disgruntled voters mistaken New Labour for the old article, then the voting might have been very different. But it does seem that Mr Blair is right to claim that voters are looking again at Labour - and liking what they see. That is why Labour broke through on Thursday into areas where it has hardly existed for two decades. In Blaby, Leicestershire, for example, Cr Clive Brett, who had fought a lonely battle for four years as Labour's sole councillor, faced by 30 Tories, was joined by 15 new colleagues - while the Conservatives number only 13. In Basildon, the Conservatives lost every seat they contested to Labour.

But the most important factor in the Tory defeat was the character and programme of the Government itself. The truth is that after 16 years, the Conservatives have ceased to be a party with a mission and have become mere administrators, partisan civil servants - too aware of the problems in every course of action and resistant to the possibilities. Increasingly, the radical and reforming impulses have slackened and the ideas dried up.

This is unlikely to be solved by a leadership battle. In November 1990, the Tory party turned its back on the qualities of Michael Heseltine and settled for Thatcherism without tears; change without leadership. This gave us membership of the ERM directed by men who turned out not to believe in it, a policy on Europe pushed hither and yon by the prejudices of the Tory fringe, and a paralysis in prosecuting necessary changes in areas such as health and education. Today, Heseltine and Clarke, the two natural leaders of a Conservative party contesting the middle ground, are out of favour. Portillo, who would be more radical, is regarded as too divisive. John Major will carry on.

Meanwhile, the voters will become increasingly impatient for the opportunity, perhaps, to take up their cues and play somewhere else.