BY JOHN ARLIDGE
The Conservatives are set to be wiped off the local government map in Scotland in next week's local elections. The loss of all but one of the six local authorities the Tories currently control, followed by a disastrous performance in the council elections south of the border and defeat in the Perth and Kinross by- election, could spell the end of John Major's premiership.
The latest opinion polls in Scotland show the Tories are on course to lose five of the six district councils where they now have an overall majority. Political observers say the party's only slim chance of success lies in East Renfrewshire, south of Glasgow. Labour is set to capture more than half of the councils, with the rest shared between the Scottish National Party and independent candidates.
The elections are the first since the Government redrew local government boundaries in Scotland last year, dismantling the country's nine regional and 53 district councils and replacing them with 29 single-tier authorities and three unitary island councils. During the passage of the Local Government (Scotland) Bill, ministers said the new structure would save money and bring services "closer to the people", but critics dismissed the reforms as an attempt to gerrymander support for embattled Scots Tories.
The recent slump in support for the Government north of the border, to 11 per cent, has removed any lingering hopes ministers may have had that the new structure would create Tory safe havens in Labour's heartland. Across the country, from Aberdeen to Ayr, the predicted 15 per cent swing from the Tories to Labour next week will, at best, leave the Tories in charge of a council serving just 2 per cent of the Scottish population.
The Tories currently have 236 councillors in Scotland. Analysts say that will drop to a record low of 110 out of the reduced total of 1,161 who will serve on the new mainland authorities. Labour is expected to gain control of at least five councils - including Stirling and South Ayrshire from the Tories - leaving them in charge of local services for four out of five Scots.
The SNP looks set to hold Angus and it expects to become the largest party in Perthshire and Kinross and Moray. The outlook is bleak for the Liberal Democrats because the Local Government Act abolished both district councils that party controlled.
Because the local government map has been completely redrawn - with new wards in the new councils - comparing the results of next Thursday's poll with the last big test of local Scottish opinion in 1992 will be difficult.
John Curtice, senior lecturer in politics at Strathclyde University, said: "The Tories are facing disaster in Scotland but the full impact of the results will only become clear after the local elections south of the border in May. In Scotland the Conservatives will be left in control of little or nothing. If the same happens in England and the party loses to the SNP in the Perth and Kinross by-election, the Government's Westminster majority will be threatened and its presence in local government will be almost non-existent across the UK. This combination - the so-called `triple whammy' - coupled with the Tories' enduring divisions over Europe, could be the beginning of the end for the Prime Minister."
Until April 1996, when the Government's Scottish council reorganisation comes into full effect, the 29 authorities elected next week will operate in shadow form only. The 62 existing councils will continue to administer services until 1 April next year as the new bodies set up administrative structures.
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