LABOUR last night breezed to victory to secure a second successive year at the helm in Bolton.

Predictions of a strong Conservative comeback and a close election proved off the mark as the party increased its number of councillors from 24 to 26, bucking the national trend.

Labour lost only one seat, Westhoughton North and Chew Moor, to the Conservatives, who finished only one councillor up on last year with 22 seats. Great Lever was snatched from the Tories and Crompton from the Lib Dems, who endured a miserable night and were reduced from 15 seats to 12.

Jubilant Labour and council leader, Cllr Cliff Morris, said: "I think this is a brilliant result for the Labour party in Bolton. We seem to have gone against the national trend.

Bolton West MP Ruth Kelly, who attended the Bolton Arena count, said it had been a "fantastic" night for Labour.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said: "It was a comfortable victory and it's really good to see some Labour gains.

"Cliff Morris has done a superb job and this shows what can be done with really good leadership which responds to the concerns of local people."

The Conservatives gained Horwich and Blackrod from the Lib Dems and Westhoughton North and Chew Moor from Labour.

But leader Cllr Alan Rushton was left to reflect on a disappointing night. He said: "We expected to be the leading group but in politics it always comes down to the unknown.

"There is a feeling of overall disappointment. We put up a good fight with a good team but the public has voted and we respect Labour's victory.

"Cllr Morris and I have had a gentleman's agreement for four years that the group with the largest number of councillors take power of the council chamber - I shall be giving that same assurance to the Labour group."

Cllr Rushton, who said he would stay on as leader if backed by fellow Conservative councillors, said there were positives to take from the night.

"In 1997-98 we had just six Conservative councillors and we have never been knocked-back since," he said.

"We have gained seats every year and hopefully it's onwards and upwards from here."

Liberal Democrat leader, Cllr Barbara Ronson, who will now step down to become Mayor, reflected on the party's worst result in six years.

She said: "Last year we lost four councillors and then we had defection and a resignation. It take a lot of recovering from that.

"I am sure we'll be back."

Bolton's first ever BNP candidate, David Wood, beat the Lib Dems to third place in Tonge with the Haulgh, securing 524 votes, while Veritas polled just 74 votes in the same ward.

None of the Green Party's ten candidates mounted a serious challenge.

The first result - for the Halliwell ward was announced at 11.32pm, marking a Labour hold and victory for deputy leader of the Labour Party in Bolton, Linda Thomas.

The final count was announced at 12.50am -75-year-old Margaret Rothwell provided a silver lining for an otherwise cloudy night for the Lib Dems by beating off competition from former Labour deputy leader, Guy Harkin. Turnout was 33.44 per cent compared to 34 per cent last year.

For full results, in-depth coverage and pictures, see Friday's edition of The Bolton News.