Pressure mounts on Sir Menzies

IT may have been a bad night for Labour, but as the Conservatives captured hundreds of council seats across England, Super Thursday turned into an absolute disaster for the Liberal Democrats.

By Graham Dines

IT may have been a bad night for Labour, but as the Conservatives captured hundreds of council seats across England, Super Thursday turned into an absolute disaster for the Liberal Democrats.

There is now mounting pressure on Sir Menzies Campbell, whose party has lost more than 250 councillors and seen control of flagship councils such as Torbay, Bournemouth and South Norfolk lost after a dramatic poll plunge.

In Essex, the Lib Dems lost 12 seats to the Tories in Uttlesford - the authority which includes Great Dunmow, Saffron Walden and Stansted Airport - and in South Norfolk which takes in Diss, the Conservatives gained 20 seats from Campbell's troops.

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Party insiders had expected a difficult night, but most were expecting support to tread water rather than dip so sharply. Thursday's results are bound to renew speculation over whether Sir Menzies is the right person to lead them into the next general election.

Questions have been raised over his age and perceived lacklustre performances in the House of Commons, with suggestions that home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg or environment spokesman Chris Huhne should take over.

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Sir Ming has another major handicap - he's Scottish. As southern and eastern England show signs of concern over Labour's Scottish dominance on English policy, the Lib Dems are unable to cash in giving the Tories plenty of opportunity to mop up.

As the results came in, the party clung to its three major results of the night - gaining Eastbourne from the Conservatives as well as Hull and Rochdale. And while they had some other success - in Chelmsford, the party picked up five seats to wipe Labour off the council, although the council is still controlled by the Tories - it was not enough to stop the speculation.

Sir Menzies insists he'll remain in his job, stressing that the projected 26% vote share in England was higher than at the last General Election - although it is down 1% on last year's ballots.

“I said these elections were going to be pretty tough, but to win Hull and Rochdale and Eastbourne is obviously extremely acceptable to us,” said Sir Ming. “So a mixed bag, but one or two very good results to be cheerful about.”

Tory leader David Cameron said his party had made “a real breakthrough” and pointed to the north of England, which in recent years has seen the party virtually wiped out. “We are building our way back into the councils of cities across the country and right across the north.”

Tories triumphed spectacularly in Blackpool, gaining from the backlash against the Government's decision to deny the resort the opportunity of regeneration which would have been created by Britain's first super casino, which will be built in Manchester instead.

The Tories picked up seats in Birmingham, York, Wakefield, Bolton, Wigan, Bury, Chester, and on Tyneside.

The Prime Minister remained defiant in the face of Labour's heavy losses across the UK as he prepares to announce the date of his resignation. Mr Blair said the anticipated Labour rout had not taken place.

“For the Lib Dems, I think it's been a dreadful set of results and the Tories have not broken through, particularly in northern cities, in the way they wanted to.”

Tony Blair added: “We mustn't be complacent. There are challenges ahead. Always in mid-term, when you are 10 years in Government, it's tough.”

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