THE political balance of Blackburn and Darwen is on a knife-edge after a leading councillor left his party.

Coun Michael Johnson has quit the For Darwen group in what he described as an "amicable" split over policy differences with party members.

The development leaves control of the borough finely balanced ahead of May's local elections.

The ruling coalition of Conservatives, Lib Dems and For Darwen now has 31 seats, the same number as the Labour group.

Coun Johnson and former Lib Dem Arif Waghat, who resigned from the group after being convicted of benefit fraud but has continued to support the coalition, therefore now hold the key votes.

Coun Johnson, the lead member for leisure and culture, will continue as an independent councillor, and insisted he would not be swayed by any of the political groupings in the town hall.

He said he no longer wanted to be part of a group "playing party politics", and said an impending operation on his shoulder would mean he could no longer dedicate the time to being a party member.

He said: "For the first time ever, I will be able to follow my own convictions and my own personal beliefs.

"Every member of the party has the right to follow his own personal beliefs and can't be held to account in any way shape or form for that."

He admitted he was looking forward to the prospect of holding a key vote in big decisions taken by the council.

For Darwen leader Tony Melia, who helped form the party alongside Coun Johnson, said the grass-roots executive committee had expressed concern about media stories featuring Coun Johnson, the member for Fernhurst.

In November the former England First party candidate was featured in a newspaper article which claimed he had attacked immigrants - although he later insisted he was misquoted. He subsequently received a vote of no confidence by councillors.

Disagreements over the future of the For Darwen party were also a factor, Coun Melia added.

With only one more full council meeting to come before a third of the council stands for re-election in May, and the budget already agreed, council leader Colin Rigby played down the importance of the change.

He said: "If it had happened six months ago it would have been a problem, but I am quite relaxed.

"There is only one meeting to go prior to the elections, and I would be very suprised if he voted with the Labour group.

"I don't know the ins and outs of what has happened. His party has taken the decision and that's that."

Labour leader Kate Hollern said there would be no attempt to force power changes before May.

She added: "There are cracks appearing in the coalition - and you need a stable administration."