LONDON -- Local and regional elections caused British Prime Minister Tony Blair some nervousness Thursday, but it was the leader of the opposition who was sweating the vote count.
Iain Duncan Smith, leader of the Conservative Party, likely would face yet another round of internal carping and even plotting if his once-mighty party failed to make significant gains against Blair's Labor Party.
Voters were electing some 10,000 members on 308 English local councils as well as lawmakers in the Scottish and Welsh regional assemblies. No parliamentary seats were at stake, and Blair doesn't have to call a national election until 2006.
Early returns from just 17 councils showed the Conservatives gaining 22 seats.
while Labor had lost 34.
Local elections that fall between national elections are a traditional way for Britain's voters to express doubts about the party in power.
Blair's popularity has risen since the Iraq war, he commands a lopsided majority in the House of Commons, and analysts say he won't be in any immediate trouble unless Labor loses more than 600 council seats.
Duncan Smith, however, needed solid gains. Conscious that his party has made no significant dent in Labor's poll standing in six years, he set a modest target of adding just 30 seats.
Privately, Conservative officials reportedly hoped for up to 200 extra seats, but even that might not silence Duncan Smith's numerous detractors within the party.
The former army officer, who was elected leader after Labor's landslide victory in the 2001 general election, has declared his intention to make the Conservatives more inclusive. But his party chairman, Theresa May, offended many stalwarts last year by telling them they were perceived as the "nasty party."
The Conservatives, the party of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, have struggled to devise a winning strategy against Blair, who has moved Labor to the center and embraced traditional Conservative free-market values.
Thatcher referred to that problem Wednesday in an interview recorded for broadcasting to business leaders meeting at the Institute of Directors, in which she complimented Blair as "a bold and effective war leader."
"I do not think many people imagined when the Conservatives formed a government in 1979 that we would so effectively transform the economy, but I am quite sure that nobody thought we would so thoroughly transform our opponents," Thatcher said. "Indeed, that has been a bit of a problem for the Conservatives: Mr. Blair and the Labor Party sound too much like us."
Thatcher did criticize Blair's policy of raising taxes to pay for an effort to improve the widely criticized National Health Service, in contrast to Duncan Smith's argument that he could cut spending by 20 percent and still improve services.
Blair also is putting more money into schools and transportation, two other areas that Britons are complaining about.