Tories resurgent in councils' poll

THE Labour Party across East Anglia was mauled on Thursday by resurgent Conservatives in the local elections. But there was some good news as well for the Liberal Democrats.

THE Labour Party across East Anglia was mauled on Thursday by resurgent Conservatives in the local elections. But there was some good news as well for the Liberal Democrats. Political Editor GRAHAM DINES assesses the mood of the region and the nation in the wake of the biggest electoral test since the General Election.

THE night started ominously for the Conservatives.

The decision of little-known MP Crispin Blunt to quit his front-bench seat and call for the resignation of party leader Iain Duncan Smith was made known to news organisations just after 7.30pm, under strict embargo until 9pm.

It was deliberately so orchestrated to cause the maximum damage to the Tory leader. Many MPs had already decided that if the Conservatives failed to make headway, Mr Duncan Smith's future would be on the line.

Once journalists started breaking the news to Conservative contacts, the wine bars around Westminster and other watering holes in the capital frequented by strategists and backroom staff emptied.

Clutching mobile phones, they demanded to know how any Conservative MP could be so reckless and divisive as to try to overshadow what they hoped would be good news later on that night for Mr Duncan Smith.

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It was soon clear the party's anger would be turned on Mr Blunt. His boss, Tim Yeo, the MP for South Suffolk and Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary, could barely disguise his contempt for the deliberate hijacking of the news agenda.

Ten hours later, Mr Blunt's decision blew up in his face. The Conservatives had gained more than 500 council seats – far in excess of their expectations – and taken three first-past-the-post seats in the Scottish Parliament elections: Edinburgh Pentlands, Ayr, and Galloway & Upper Nithsdale.

A relieved Mr Duncan Smith was able rightly to claim the Conservative victory as "spectacular". Scores of councils fell to the Tories, including Basildon, Chelmsford, Mid Suffolk and St Edmundsbury.

The Liberal Democrats also made hay at the expense of Labour. Almost one-third of their 200 gains nationwide came in the six counties of the East of England and they took control of Uttlesford and St Albans, consolidated their hold on Norwich, and picked up seats in Babergh and Colchester.

Much of the Tory success in southern England and East Anglia, and especially in Suffolk, can be laid at the door of council tax.

Although the much-criticised 18.5% rise in the council tax paid by Suffolk residents was imposed by Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors at County Hall, it was their district colleagues that paid a heavy, electoral, price.

Tiny Mid Suffolk District Council fell to the Conservative, even though the previous Liberal Democrat administration had increased the district's portion of tax by single figures.

The Tories also took seats on Ipswich Borough and Suffolk Coastal District Councils, and especially St Edmundsbury Borough Council, as householders vented their anger at the way the county council, with little hint of apology, raised tax by more than seven times the rate of inflation.

The reason for the rise was the deliberate decision of Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott to divert cash away council cash support away from the South and East and give it to northern England.

Middle England took its revenge – and voters were sophisticated enough to know where to attach the blame.

In Essex, where the Tory-run county council has hiked tax by about 16%, Labour was given a bloody nose.

The Conservative administration at County Hall in Chelmsford had more success in blaming the Government that their opposite numbers in Suffolk.

Yet there were setbacks for the Tories in East Anglia. In Colchester, the party lost ground to the Liberal Democrats, while in Uttlesford, it was the Lib Dems that capitalised on the growing anger at plans to expand Stansted Airport to perhaps the size of Heathrow.

David Ruffley, the Conservative MP for Bury St Edmunds, said the Tory successes in Suffolk were significant.

"We can take great comfort from the fact that our local campaigning has paid dividends. But while council tax was a big issue on the doorstep, it was by no means the only one," he added.

Despite the embarrassment of Mr Blunt's resignation, Mr Duncan Smith welcomed his party's performance.

"The Labour Party has had its worst result since the Winter of Discontent in 1979. The Conservatives are now the largest party of local government in Great Britain," he said.

"More and more people are recognising that Conservatives provide better services and still manage to charge lower taxes – a fair deal for everyone."

Bizarrely, Labour Party chairman Ian McCartney argued the outcome was a disappointing one for the Tories.

"There's not a Government in history that has not had a bad mid-term, even as good a Government as this one," he said.

"The question was, could the Conservatives in mid-term under Iain Duncan Smith do as well as William Hague? And the answer to that is they failed dismally."

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy described his party's showing in the local elections as "an excellent result".

With about 200 seats gained nationwide and a share of the vote of about 30%, Mr Kennedy argued the Liberal Democrats were competing effectively with Labour and the Conservatives.

"This shows we are very much in three-party politics, competing on the same basis as the other two (main parties)," he said.

"It exceeds our expectations. We would have been more than happy with significantly fewer gains than what has come through."

Labour strategists may be relieved their mid-term showing was not even lower, but there will be real pain at some of the party's losses.

Birmingham, Britain's second city, headed the casualty list as results left no party with overall control.

BBC analysis put the Conservatives on 34%, Labour on 30%, the Liberal Democrats on 30% and others on 5% across the country.

That compares with the 42% the Conservatives need to win a General Election and represents the Lib Dems' strongest local election showing yet.

While the Conservatives are properly celebrating, their success should not be over-estimated.

Mid-term council victories are common place for opposition parties and bear no relation to results at the following general election.

The Conservative must now rally around Mr Duncan Smith and ignore the knock-about comments of Mr Prescott that the Tory leader is Labour's best asset.

The Conservatives are quite capable, on this week's showing, of winning 70 seats from Labour at the next General Election – and losing up to 10 to the Liberal Democrats.

A net gain of 60 would give them just 234 MPs out of 659. Add 90 seats for the Lib Dems, Northern Irish, and Nationalists and the combined opposition parties would still have only 304, giving Tony Blair a comfortable majority of about 60.

The next big test for the parties is the European Parliament elections in June next year.

When last contested in 1999, the Conservatives did spectacularly well on a very low turnout and they will have their work cut out to keep the same number of MEPs as they have at the moment.