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Last Updated: Friday, 2 May, 2003, 01:29 GMT 02:29 UK
All eyes on 'mid-term' report

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith initially looked to be suffering a black Thursday night as one of his own frontbenchers delivered a serious new blow to his leadership.

Early indications of share of the vote in the local elections in England suggested that the Tories were falling short of the sort of gains Mr Duncan Smith needed to head off a leadership challenge.

But with more than 400 seats gained it seems that the Tory leader has at least given himself a fighting chance of survival.

Talk of leadership challenges remains, prompted this time by trade spokesman Crispin Blunt who did not wait to see how the results panned out, choosing to quit and demand his leader's resignation before votes were counted.

Once again the Liberal Democrats appeared to be reaping the benefits as voters delivered their verdict on the big parties' performance.

Labour was doing badly, but probably not as badly as it should be doing at this period in a second term.

Under normal circumstances these elections would have been expected to see Labour losing serious chunks of ground to the Tories. But these are not normal circumstances.

War impact

The Tory party has so far failed to show any sign of a real recovery and, despite deep seated worries over government polices on public services, Labour is not facing a serious challenge.

Then there was the war. It was difficult to tell precisely whether Labour was suffering from "Baghdad backlash" or gaining from "Baghdad bounce".

Certainly, Tony Blair has emerged with his position and popularity enhanced after the successful war with Iraq.

But there are deep divisions at the heart of the Labour party over the way he took Britain into the conflict.

There were persistent claims that some local Labour parties were finding it difficult to get local activists to canvass during the election campaign.

As the night progressed all eyes were turning on the Tory vote and any sign from dissidents that they were now planning a challenge to Mr Duncan Smith.

Most to lose

Mr Blunt's resignation dismayed many and surprised more, particularly with its timing.

The Tory leadership will want to dismiss it as another non-event. But others may seize on it as a spark to ignite a leadership challenge flame.

Even before voting started, it was clear that Mr Duncan Smith had the most to lose.

Like William Hague before him when these same seats were last up for grabs, his leadership is under almost constant threat.

Four years ago the Tories did better than most doom-mongers had been predicting, and Mr Hague lived to fight, and lose, another day.

But the party failed to make the gains it should have done if it really was on the way back.

Expectation management

That ground should be made up this time around.

That meant the Tories should win at least 400 or 500 seats to look like it is a serious contender once again.

That is why the party bosses kept insisting they only expected to win 30 seats. It was a piece of expectation management designed, in part, to save Mr Duncan Smith.

If they really did only score 30 - or even 200 or so seats - the chances of a leadership challenge would have risen dramatically.

Labour has also been in the business of expectation management by suggesting the Tories should win 1,000 seats and that, thanks to mid-term blues, the government party cannot expect much from the polls.

Labour should, indeed, lose a significant number of seats. Its task will be to limit those losses.

Lib Dems

Charles Kennedy's Liberal Democrats should be ideally placed to capitalise on all these factors, particularly continuing Tory woes.

And it is quite likely the party will do well in the elections, especially in Tory areas.

It almost certainly will not make the longed-for historic breakthrough, but Mr Kennedy's leadership is almost certain to be further strengthened.

Then there are the smaller parties and the large number of independents capitalising on the growing disillusion with big party politics.

Whatever the outcome, however, Tony Blair, Iain Duncan Smith and Charles Kennedy know the result will be widely viewed as the biggest post-general election verdict on their leaderships.

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