PM teeters on brink

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 May, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 May, 1995, 12:00am

WILL John Major stay on as Prime Minister, jump or be pushed following the worst ever local government election result for the Tories? That was the question racking the Conservative Party last night as depressed MPs returned to their constituencies from Westminster knowing that for many the local grassroots of Tory politics has been all but destroyed.

The party knew a disaster was coming - but nothing had prepared them for the scale of yesterday's defeat.

For many MPs the view is that it must accept its fate whatever happens and that the slump in support would be there no matter who was at the helm.

Even some of those keen to see Mr Major step down were firmly discounting suggestions that there might be an attempt to bring forward a leadership election from the autumn, when it must be held within a set period following the party's conference. A challenge then does seem likely however.

Mr Major and senior cabinet figures were yesterday trying to steady what is left of the resolve of their MPs. Cabinet ministers are on the alert to appear in weekend television and radio interviews with carefully rehearsed pledges of loyalty.

But the critical time for Mr Major will be next week when Tory MPs return to Westminster after meeting defeated councillors in their constituencies.

With the Conservatives now reduced to a shadow of their former selves in many areas the long-term effects on the party are serious. Many MPs come up through the ranks: John Major was, for instance, a south London councillor and that avenue will now be restricted.

It also makes for angry local workers - just the people the party needs on the ground in a general election campaign. Last night there was more than just a whisper that John Major will have to go.

The results are also likely to prompt a rush of MPs seeking other jobs, knowing that they will have little chance of being re-elected at the general election on present form.

For Labour it was a dream night and day after their string of general election failures since 1979. Senior figures were reluctant to sound complacent but it is hard to see how they could have done much better.

For the Liberal Democrats too there is some delight - the party had feared being devastated by the 'Blair effect' and Labour's move into the centre ground.

But such fears have proved unfounded with many normally Conservative voters proving they would still rather vote for the traditional party of the centre if they are making a protest. Votes for Liberal Democrats also demonstrate that their power base in the west is growing.

It will want its successes at local government level to be transformed to national level - the big Tory fear.

The one crumb of hope for the Conservatives is that the turnout was low.

The Tories are pinning their hopes on there being up to two years before a general election, time for voters to come back when they realise, in the Tory view, the real nature of Tony Blair's New Labour as old hardline socialist Labour in new clothes.