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Last Updated: Friday, 2 May, 2003, 07:13 GMT 08:13 UK
Poll brings mixed messages

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

There are mixed messages for both the major parties and their leaders from Thursday's local elections.

The Tories did far better than many had expected, but only made the sort of gains that would suggest they are still treading water nationally.

Labour clearly suffered the worst with some serious and near-historic council losses, but escaped the sort of wipe-out that they may normally have feared in a mid term poll.

Only the Liberal Democrats - along with some of the smaller parties - can claim a clear victory from the local elections.

Leader Charles Kennedy has again shown he has put his party in a position to attract votes from electors disillusioned with the two big parties.

In Scotland, Labour again failed to get a majority but will be relieved that the SNP suffered a significant setback.

The biggest gainer were probably the Scottish Socialists, led by the popular Tommy Sheridan. That was seen as another warning to Mr Blair about his policy direction.

In Wales, however, Labour had a hugely successful night thanks largely to the popularity of leader Rhodri Morgan.

That will be little comfort to Tony Blair. Mr Morgan was not his chosen candidate and represents a distinctly Old Labour tradition.

No celebrations

But the headline figures of seats gained and lost is only part of the picture.

Far more significant is the share of the vote scored by each party.

And on that basis, things are far less clear - particularly for Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith.

He will probably resist the temptation to celebrate his 500 seat victory, knowing it has probably not removed the question mark over his leadership.

Mr Duncan Smith's dissenters will not easily be able to use the poll as their only reason for staging a coup against him.

That was dramatically hit by a call for his resignation from the party's trade spokesman Crispin Blunt who chose election night to quit, declaring his leader was a loser.

The Tories always knew their claim they would only win around 30 seats was ludicrously pessimistic.

Battle lines

It was a deliberate attempt to dampen down expectations and, had the party really only achieved that result, Mr Duncan Smith would have almost certainly have been on the way out.

A 500 seat gain is much nearer the mark.

But it cannot hide the fact that the share of the vote - which has put the party only a shade ahead of the Lib Dems - means the Tories have still failed to stage the sort of recovery needed to suggest they are on the road to general election victory.

Tony Blair knows that a far worse outcome could well have been on the cards.

What the result does mean is that Mr Duncan Smith's dissenters will not easily be able to use the poll as their only reason for staging a coup against him.

They may well still do so, and Mr Blunt's resignation may help, but it will be far tougher for them than many had clearly expected.

In any case, they still face the problem of who should replace Mr Duncan Smith and the difficulty of predicting how the party's grassroots membership would vote in any contest.

Labour, meanwhile, was also in no position to celebrate - but few expected it would be. Losses of around 750 seats is a blow, but not a devastation.

Losing councils like Birmingham and Coventry are also serious setbacks and suggest there is still widespread dissatisfaction with the government.

It was also pretty clear that any "Baghdad bounce" may have been balanced by a "Baghdad backlash" - particularly n Muslim areas like Birmingham - as voters expressed their opposition to the war and the way Tony Blair went into it.

But the party will also look at its share of the vote to take some comfort.

Lib Dem scare

It has not been wiped out in the way the Tories were two elections ago.

While the prime minister will be disappointed by the results, he knows that a far worse outcome could well have been on the cards.

He knows that he has a big job to do to push through his welfare state reforms in the face of widespread opposition and that there is still lingering resentment over the war. Charles Kennedy can celebrate.

His party has shown once again it can seize its opportunities and give the Tories a real scare.

It has particularly shown that there are no longer any areas of the country that are no-go areas for it.

The trick now is to maintain that momentum in the years running up to the next general election.

Some of the smaller parties like the Greens and Scottish Socialists also did well.

But the successes of the far-right BNP will again serve as a warning to the big parties that they have to address the sorts of problems, like asylum, which they have exploited.

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