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Conservative leader Michael Howard will use the success of his party's councils as a central plank of his general e...
Conservative leader Michael Howard will use the success of his party's councils as a central plank of his general election campaign.

He is delighted the gains in the Super Thursday council elections have allowed the Tories to take the chairmanship of the Local Government Association.

But he faced charges of panic after a surprise reshuffle saw a shift to the right, as Mr Howard sought to refocus on public services.

The Tory leader welcomed the first Conservative chairmanship of the LGA since its formation in 1997. Sources close to the leader confirmed his high regard for Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart of Kent CC.

Shadow local and devolved government affairs secretary Caroline Spelman said: 'Taking control of the LGA is a real prize for any political party, and this reflects our excellent results in the local elections.'

The gains necessary to achieve this showed the party was well-placed to win a general election, she added.

The reshuffle gives former Tory chair Theresa May a new campaigning role in the run-up to the general election.

She switched from the environment and transport brief to shadow secretary for the family, but will also be responsible for highlighting local government successes in 'delivering better services at lower cost'.

Mr Howard has abandoned the experiment of giving Tim Yeo responsibility for both health and education - seen as vital election issues - and he moves sideways to replace Ms May.

The position of shadow secretary of state for public services was split into two, with Andrew Lansley taking over health and Tim Collins education. Local government finance spokesman David Cameron was promoted to head of policy co-ordination.

In his monthly Downing Street press conference, prime minister Tony Blair said Labour would win

back their heartland councils, and claimed Liberal Democrat success would not last. Underwhelming Tory performances in Manchester and Birmingham City Councils did not suggest they are a government in

waiting, he added.

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