The Conservatives tightened their grip on Welwyn Hatfield by increasing their majority in last night's district council elections.

They seized a Labour seat in the marginal ward of Hatfield West, where new councillor John Hawkins toppled the incumbent Roy Moss by 135 votes.

Triumphant council leader Russell Le Page said after Thursday night's count at the Hatfield Leisure Centre: "For the first time, Welwyn Hatfield Council has a plan for the future a Conservative plan.

"We will ensure it is better run than in all those terrible years of Labour councils."

Labour ambitions in Sherrards, another marginal ward, were frustrated when Tory John Burnapp held the seat with 123 votes to spare.

The result in Handside was eagerly awaited by Liberal Democrats, who came within 22 votes of taking the Tory seat last year.

This time Mr Daniel Cooke forced deputy council leader Dennis Lewis into a recount, but fell short by just 20, and his party remains without any council seats.

He said: "I am disappointed but not surprised, as Dennis has been there 35 years.

"We are keeping up the momentum."

The ward, where both parties had campaigned heavily, had a comparatively high turn-out of 46.2 per cent, but overall voter participation fell by two per cent to 33.1, with one vote in four cast by post.

MP Melanie Johnson was at the count to watch her secretary Maureen Cook fight off a Lib Dem challenge in Hatfield Central, but jubilant Tories were claiming they were on course to unseat the MP at the next General Election.

The low turnout meant some ballot boxes were almost empty gave the candidates, party campaigners and tellers an early night, with the last result being declared at 12.35am.