Clare Dean on the battle to control the shires where the last polls left Conservative fortunes at an all-time low.
In the election that nobody talks about - the local government polls that also take place on May 1 - the Conservatives are not even fielding their full contingent of candidates.
The party has fallen well short of finding people to represent it in Blackpool, Plymouth and Slough which are three key marginals in the general election.
In Slough, where Labour holds the parliamentary seat with a lead of just 0.1 per cent over the Conservatives, the Tories are fielding 19 fewer candidates than places available.
The shortfall reflects unhappiness among grass-root Tories about the negative attitude they believe ministers have shown towards local government, and highlights the difficulties the party has recruiting from its ageing and declining membership.
Demitri Coryton, chairman of the Conservative Education Association, said: "It is not disillusionment with the party as a whole or national policies, but you can't go on bashing local government and expect people to give up their time if they don't feel valued."
But while the Conservatives trail in national opinion polls, their strategists are confident that they will regain many of the local education authorities they lost four years ago.
They reckon that on May 2 they will control at least Essex, Kent, Cambridgeshire, Hampshire and Dorset, snatching back seats from the Liberal Democrats, which reached a high water mark of support in 1993, when county elections were last fought.
Local government analysts are more sceptical - but they concede that the Conservatives could well gain Bedfordshire, Surrey, West Sussex, Cheshire and Cambridgeshire.
And that will provide an interesting challenge to a new Labour government.
For the results of the local government elections will not only decide who controls England's biggest education authorities but also who runs the newly formed Local Government Association.
Labour currently controls the education committee of the LGA with Graham Lane, the former education chair of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, as its chair. But, depending on the swing, the chair could go to Edward Lister, leader of the Tory flagship London borough of Wandsworth who is the Conservative education spokesman on the LGA.
Labour has been talking down such a prospect and its local government candidates are no doubt hoping to ride on the wave of public support for the party nationally.
Education is featuring heavily on the doorstep, according to Labour, which believes that the issues being debated nationally like school standards and funding depend crucially on how education is monitored and controlled locally.
Conservative councillors are relying on voters being able to distinguish between their performance and that of MPs, with many grassroots Tories deeply unhappy about the local and general election being held on the same day.
The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, who are the second largest party in local government predict large numbers of votes being cast for different parties in the two elections. To their gain.
In the last county council elections in 1993, Labour and the Liberal Democrats turned a majority of previously Tory councils into "no overall control" zones.
At that time, the three main parties each polled around 30 per cent of the vote. General election opinion polls now suggest that the Liberal Democrats will get just 12 per cent and that, said Paul White, the Conservatives' most senior local government representative, is where the Tories will make their gains.
"We expect on May 1 to regain most of the seats that the Liberal Democrats took from us four years ago," said Mr White, who is Conservative leader on the LGA.
"Essex, Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, Bedfordshire, Norfolk, Suffolk ... a lot of counties could come back tohe Conservatives with a very small swing."
Some 3,300 seats are being contested in Thursday's local government elections in 33 counties, 2 unitary and 19 shadow authorities, the new county of Worcestershire and the new Malvern Hills district council.
The Conservatives currently control just one county council - Buckinghamshire, where they hold 34 out of the 54 seats. The Liberal Democrats are the second biggest party, with 10 seats.
Labour controls seven counties and two unitaries. The remaining 20 county councils have either no overall control or are hung.
In the 19 new English unitaries where elections are taking place for shadow authorities the 1,003 seats are all up for grabs. These authorities, which formally come into being on April 1, 1998, mark the end of the final phase of the English local government review.
County councillors in areas becoming unitary will hold their seats without election until April 1998, when the new authorities come on stream.
In most areas the counts for local elections will not be held until the morning of May 2 after the ballots for the general election. Authorities are hoping to have their final results by the end of the day.
Turn-outs averaged about 35 per cent and reached 46 per cent in England and Wales in 1993 but could be as high as 70 per cent this time because of the local elections coinciding with the general election.
Colin Rallings, from Plymouth University's local election centre, said: "A lot will depend really on what happens in the general election. If the Conservatives don't lose by a mile there are many counties you would expect them to take."
He predicts they could do well in Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire because of the new unitary authorities that are being created in those two counties from next year.
Last time, the Tories did not win Bedfordshire because of Labour dominance in Luton, but that is to become a unitary authority from next April and voting for the shadow authority takes places next week.
In Cambridgeshire, the political complexion could change because of the advent of Peterborough unitary authority.
Howard Sykes, acting political secretary of the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors, said: "No one will really know what will happen until they shake out those votes."
What is clear, though, is that the Conservatives cannot possibly hope to win Blackpool, Plymouth and Slough simply because they are not putting up a full field of candidates.
Labour needs a swing of just 0.3 per cent to take Blackpool South from the Tories for the parliamentary seat. A 6.1 per cent swing will secure it Blackpool North and Fleetwood.
Conservatives in the Lancashire holiday area, however, are putting up just 34 candidates for the 44 seats available for the new unitary authority.
In Slough, which the Tories could gain from Labour on a 1 per cent swing for a seat in Parliament, the Conservatives are contesting only 21 of the 41 seats available.
Meanwhile in Plymouth, which Labour could win in the general election on a 2 per cent swing, the Conservatives are fielding 52 candidates for 60 seats. As Mr Sykes said: "You can't get elected if you don't stand."
COUNTY COUNCILS' PRE-ELECTION LINE-UP
Tory-controlled: Buckinghamshire Labour: Derbyshire, Durham, Lancashire, Northamptonshire, Northumberland, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire.
Liberal Democrat-controlled: Cornwall, East Sussex, Hampshire, Somerset, Wiltshire.
No overall control: Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Cumbria, Devon, Dorset, Essex, Gloucestershire, Hertfordshire, Kent, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, North Yorkshire, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, Suffolk, Surrey, Warwickshire, West Sussex
MAY 1 ELECTIONS IN UNITARY AUTHORITIES