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Last Updated: Friday, 11 June, 2004, 15:58 GMT 16:58 UK
Verdict on Tory poll showing
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Michael Howard is an experienced, battle hardened politician who knows full well when not to count his chickens.

Howard can celebrate an overall victory
So, while he has plenty of reason to celebrate the Tory victory in the local elections, he will be far too canny to make any extravagant predictions about the next general election.

He will be well aware that the Tory performance fell short of the big breakthrough required to make him a racing certainty for general election victory.

He also knows that some of the shine may yet be taken off his local election successes when results from the European parliament elections are published on Sunday.

But his party's performance was certainly good enough to allow him and other senior Tories to suggest they had created the launch pad for the general election.

During the campaign, Mr Howard had been careful not to suggest these polls would put him course for general election victory.

His delight at his showing, however, did allow him to hint that he now believes he will be able to seriously raise that prospect without the notion being unceremoniously batted out of court.

Third place

He had desperately wanted a performance to prove his party were no longer shut out of some areas of the country.

And, while he may have fallen short of the ideal, there was enough in areas like Trafford for him to make that claim as well.

The European counts will not happen until Sunday
He will be delighted that, at its simplest, the Tories won these elections and that Labour was pushed into an historically low, third place.

That suggests a big anti-Labour vote, probably sparked by Iraq and loss of trust in the government, which could yet spark panic in the party ranks.

He will undoubtedly be disappointed that the anti-Labour vote appears not to have swung all his way, but also gone to the Liberal Democrats.

And Labour has lost no time in pointing out that his predecessor but one, William Hague, was in virtually the same, victorious position in 2000, only to be resoundingly beaten by Tony Blair at the general election the following year.

Ultimate prize

At the same time, where Mr Hague went into those Euro elections with a decidedly hard-line Eurosceptic position, Mr Howard has offered a more moderate approach.

That has seen significant numbers of Tories openly declaring their support for the UK Independence Party which could deliver some bad news for the Tories when the Euro results are declared on Sunday.

What Mr Howard will clearly be hoping, however, is that these results mean the party is finally coming to an end for Tony Blair's New Labour government.

He will be looking for other signs - from the London mayoral election for example - that voters have fallen out of love with the government.

And he can probably allow himself to harbour the hope that Labour's troubles will continue to escalate and that, in the year or so before the next general election, the government will simply run out of track.



Blair's big task
Labour leader needs to reassure his MPs after European election disappointment




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