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Tuesday, April 27, 1999 Published at 11:28 GMT 12:28 UK

Tories looking for gains

Tories hope to reverse the decline of the Major years

The local elections could provide the first substantial evidence of a rise in the fortunes of the Conservatives, one political expert has predicted.

Colin Rallings of the Local Government Chronicle Election Centre believes the Tories will do better than is suggested by polls, which say the party's support is even lower than at the 1997 general election.

A strong performance in these elections would boost the standing of Tory leader William Hague and help silence internal party criticism about his efforts to rally Conservative support.

It would be difficult for the Conservatives to do worse than their dismal showing at the local elections in 1995.

The party's popularity had sunk to new lows under the then Prime Minister John Major and it lost almost 2,000 councillors at a stroke.

Mr Rallings believes that the results of recent by-elections suggest that many Tories who turned to Labour as a protest vote are now returning to the party fold.

"They have been making gains from Labour. They are attracting a reasonable percentage of the vote, somewhere around the mid-30s on national equivalent terms," he says.

"On that basis they can look forward to making well over 1,000 gains in this election and therefore have some substance to their claim that they are making some progress."

BBC Political Correspondent Gary O'Donoghue says that privately Tory strategists are less optimistic and predict the party will gain between 400 to 500 seats.

Waivering voters

[ image: William Hague: Not a factor in the elections some Tories say]
William Hague: Not a factor in the elections some Tories say
However, even Labour acknowledges it could lose some of the seats it snatched from the Tories last time out .

One of the traditional Conservative strongholds which fell last time was Cherwell in Oxfordshire.

Wendy Humphries, who leads the minority Labour administration, says old loyalties are still strong despite the prosperity which the area is currently enjoying.

"If the national government does something to offend the people they will obviously retaliate and they will vote Conservative again," she says.

"I'm sure Labour won't control for 20 years. I hope we will, but reality says that people like a change every now and again and that's how it should be."

But, Conservative group leader George Reynolds is wary of encouraging too strong a link between national and local politics, having suffered the bitter consequences.

"I think Mr Hague is neither helping nor hindering as we do our best to fight on local issues.

"When we lost a lot of seats four years ago a lot of very good councillors lost because of national politics and it's not right. It's not local government," he says.

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