PM faces test in local polls
From DAVID WALLEN Europe Editor
LONDON: The biggest true test of the Tories' popularity since the 1992 election took place in Britain yesterday with local-government elections in 5,000 seats across the country.
About 15,000 candidates were fighting in 32 London boroughs, 36 metropolitan boroughs, 114 shire districts, four Welsh districts and 12 Scottish regional and island councils.
The vote was being seen as the biggest test of public opinion since the general election, but not as pivotal as the European Parliament elections next month, which will be seen by many as the ultimate test for Prime Minister John Major.
About 26 million people were eligible to vote.
Polling also was held in the Rotherham by-election caused by the death of Labour MP James Boyce, who had secured a majority of more than 17,000 at the general election.
The Tories, whose campaign was hit by squabbling over Europe among Cabinet ministers, have tried to keep local issues quite separate from the concern about their own national track record.
Their last party broadcast on Wednesday night concentrated on the difference in council tax paid by city dwellers in Tory-and Labour-controlled areas.
Party chairman Sir Norman Fowler denied the election would be a verdict on the Prime Minister. ''The issues at stake in these elections are local issues about who controls local councils,'' he said.
By contrast, Labour made clear it regarded the elections as a referendum on Mr Major's leadership and concentrated on national issues.
Although the Tories expect widespread defeats, the loss of traditional strongholds in prosperous south London boroughs would suggest new depths of disillusionment with Mr Major.