May 1, 2013 8:37 pm

Tories brace themselves for poll losses to Ukip

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Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron gets into a car as he leaves number 10 Downing Street, in central London March 20, 2013. Finance minister George Osborne faces the daunting task on Wednesday of delivering another austerity budget to a country impatient with near-zero growth.©Reuters

David Cameron is preparing for a “very difficult few days” amid fears in Downing Street that Conservative losses in Thursday’s local elections could be far worse than many had predicted.

The prime minister’s team expect renewed Tory criticism of him after polling, which is expected to see the UK Independence party make big gains.

Mr Cameron’s allies say the Tories could lose up to 700 seats and that the atmosphere in senior party circles is “very gloomy”. Even allowing for the usual exaggerated expectation management, the mood has become very downbeat.

“It will be a very difficult few days,” said one aide. Mr Cameron has been warned by his party spies to expect criticism from “the usual suspects” and several un­named disillusioned Tory grandees.

In a move to deflect attention from Ukip Mr Cameron indicated on Wednesday that he could introduce a bill in this parliament to pave the way for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.

He told BBC Radio 4’s World at One: “I think we need to demonstrate absolutely that we are serious about this referendum.”

More than 2,300 seats are being contested in Thursday’s elections, which take place mainly in shire county councils in England. Labour is also defending South Shields – David Miliband’s old seat – in a parliamentary by-election.

The prime minister said he “welcomed the scrutiny” being given to Ukip by the media – an exercise partly facilitated by a Tory campaign to expose alleged racism, sexism and homophobia among Ukip candidates.

But Tories have struggled over a strategy to deal with Nigel Farage’s party, with the cabinet minister Ken Clarke calling Ukip a bunch of “clowns”, and the former Tory chairman Lord Tebbit saying the party comes closest to a “traditional Tory agenda”.

Independent election analysts have predicted that Ukip could gain about 50 seats. However, a ComRes poll put the party on 22 per cent – suggesting that a far higher haul is possible. The Conservatives are certain to sustain heavy losses, not least because these seats were last contested in 2009, when Gordon Brown’s Labour government was deeply unpopular.

Mr Cameron hopes to redirect some of the political heat on to Ed Miliband; Tories say the Labour leader needs to record big gains across shire England to prove that his party truly reflects his “one nation” claim. Mr Miliband is hoping to win several hundred seats, but his aides have sought to play down the party’s prospects, arguing that Labour has not controlled a county council in the south or eastern England for 40 years.

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The Labour leader’s stumbling explanation of his party’s economic policy this week has added to the pressure on him; the elections cover 46 parliamentary seats targeted by Labour at the next election.

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, is also braced for a bad night, although he hopes that at least the rate of attrition of his party’s local government base might start to slow.

Perhaps the only certain winner is Mr Farage, whose anti-politics style has captured the mood of a public disillusioned with the ability of any of the mainstream parties to pull the country out of its economic slump.

The Ukip leader wants to replicate the success of the Lib Dems in building up a national party from local roots, and views these elections as an important moment in his party’s development.

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