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Local elections Friday, 5 May, 2000, 01:26 GMT 02:26 UK
Hague cheers as Blair counts losses
Voters deliver their verdict on Labour
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

Tony Blair's worst fears have been realised with a devastating defeat in the English local elections.

Millions of voters delivered their verdict on New Labour just days after the third anniversary of its historic 1997 general election landslide.

And the message was clear - Labour is deeply unpopular, suffering its worst performance for around 20 years.

Meanwhile the Tories made significant gains, giving William Hague ample ammunition to claim they are on the way back.
William Hague boosted by results
The local results, will have wide ranging consequences for the prime minister and Labour's future.

It has been widely expected that the next general election will come in around a year's time but the local poll results may well persuade Mr Blair to hold back in the hope of a revival in his fortunes.

Lose election

If the outcome was repeated at a general election, Labour would fall far short of the performance needed to win a majority.

Few believe Tony Blair will actually fail to win the next general election, but he is certain to see a vastly reduced majority and will be seriously rattled by the local polls.

The results will also strengthen the arm of those on the Labour benches who have been warning Mr Blair not to ignore core Labour voters.

As in elections last year, many Labour supporters appear to have refused to go out and vote for the party. They will have to be persuaded to come back into the fold for the next general election.

There is little doubt that rows over the health service, education, law and order, asylum seekers and the Rover affair have all hit Mr Blair's standing.

And it appears that Mr Hague's controversial remarks on asylum seekers and self-defence against burglars struck a chord with voters.

The prime minister was in Belfast in the latest series of peace talks as the results came in, leading to allegations he was ducking the bad news.

Cause for concern

Labour was always going to lose seats in the English councils after its strong performance in the last similar polls in 1996.

And the cabinet was warned on Thursday morning to expect "patchy" results across England.

But the results will delight Mr Hague who has done far better than he had hoped, easily breaking through the 500 seats barrier.

He had needed to win at least 400 seats to claim the Tories were finally on the road to recovery, but his expectations have been exceeded.

The shine was taken off his celebrations, however, by the party's performance in the Romsey by-election.

The Tories' showing comes after victories in the local and European elections last year which effectively killed off speculation about Mr Hague's future as leader.

His position now looks secure until the next general election although the Romsey result will give many in his party some cause for concern.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, meanwhile, was celebrating a better performance than he had been braced for.

The Lib Dems have been losing ground in the town halls and many had expected to see them sliding further.

But the performance in the locals, combined with the Romsey result will go a long way to ending claims that he has failed to make an impact as leader.

He took Mr Hague on head to head over his recent comments on asylum seekers and law and order, accusing him of saloon bar language.

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