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Friday, 7 May, 1999, 11:31 GMT 12:31 UK
Good news for Hague
William Hague: Some early good cheer
By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

William Hague can breath a sigh of relief after the Tories broke through the crucial 1,000-seat barrier in the "Super Thursday" local elections.

Labour lost hundreds of councillors, but were still set to maintain their lead over the Tories in the total share of the vote - the first time this century a government has managed that in a mid-term contest.

But, while Labour was bucking the mid-term blues, the immediate threat to Mr Hague's leadership was lifted after a nightmare fortnight and there were the first glimmerings of a political fightback by the Tories.

There had been fears the party would fail to claw its way back from the disastrous result it received the last time these elections were fought in 1995.

Mr Hague needed to break through the 1,000-seat barrier to lift the immediate pressure on him - although he will still need to follow through in the looming European elections to be sure of his position.

Blunt attack

But, even as the results were coming in, a senior Tory re-opened the split over the "dump Thatcherism" row with a blunt attack on Mr Hague's leadership.

Shadow health minister Alan Duncan accused his leader of being confused over policy, and told him to "go back to the drawing board".

In a magazine article that seems designed to keep the row going, Mr Duncan - from the Thatcherite wing of the party - said Mr Hague had shown a "confusion of tactics, strategy and belief" in the attempted relaunch.

Dismissing the notion that the past had to be abandoned, he declared: "We've got to do a lot of thinking, not in a climate of apology and contrition, but in a climate of some satisfaction that everything we said turned out to be true."

Key victories

Mr Hague will not let the attack take the shine off what he will see as signs of the long-awaited light at the end of the tunnel.

The Tories even managed to win back key councils such as Bromsgrove, which they lost in 1995, and which was one of their key objectives.

Vote 99 Special Coverage
They also seemed set to win a respectable showing in the elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.

They were wiped from the political map in both countries at the general election and desperately need to make a credible showing in the polls.

BBC exit poll projections look set to deny them their dream of becoming the second largest party in Wales, thanks to a late surge in support for the nationalists.

But the Tories will, at least, have broken their duck and the results may allow Mr Hague to claim the revival has started there as well.

Their showing will have been hugely helped by the fact that a form of proportional representation was being used for the first time.

No majority

Tony Blair was facing the prospect of failing to win an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament and it was even touch and go whether Labour could take control of the Welsh Assembly.

That could see him forced to forge coalitions with the Liberal Democrats, who narrowly beat the Tories to third place in Scotland and hoped to do the same in Wales.

Both nationalist parties - the SNP in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales - appeared to be doing better than expected, partly as a result of the PR voting system.

That will raise fears that the result in Scotland could show a revival for the SNP and mark the first steps towards independence.

The Liberal Democrats have already started to lay down their demands for any post-election coalitions and are seeking places in the new cabinets.

But for Mr Hague, it is the local elections which will prove crucial.

Labour landslide

Labour won an unprecedented landslide the last time the elections were held in 1995 and are certain to lose seats.

The Tories need to gain at least 1,000 and possibly nearer 1,500 seats to prove they are back in the game - and to lift the question mark over William Hague's leadership.

One bad piece of news for all the parties was the projected low turnout of less than 30% in the local polls - one of the worst showings for decades.

All the parties have feared the polls would be marked by apathy and had made frantic last-minute pleas to the voters to turn out.

There is a real danger in Wales, where only just over 50% of the electorate voted for the assembly in the referendum, that a similar turnout for the election could undermine the assembly's credibility before it even starts work.

David McLetchie: "It's what you do in the job that counts"
Peter Snow reports on the past and current performance of Conservative leaders
Lord Strathclyde: "This will be a more volatile form of politics"
See also:

06 May 99 | News
07 May 99 | UK Politics

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