Election '97: Blair sweeps to victory

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair was on course for a big majority to take him into Number 10 last night, breaking 18 years of Conservative rule, after exit polls showed Labour pulling significantly ahead of John Major.

With his 44th birthday next Tuesday, Mr Blair would become the youngest Prime Minister for more than 100 years. He has promised to "make Britain better" and deliver a 10-point package of reforms on central issues of voter concern like health, education, crime, and jobs.

He has also said that he wants to offer the country a "new" politics, devoid of the old ideological battles, for the new millennium.

The defeat of the Tories could unleash the full-scale civil war that has been repressed since Margaret Thatcher was replaced by Mr Major, following a party coup, in December 1990.

The Conservatives have held office for 59 of the 79 years since the modern party system emerged in 1918. But that will be little consolation if an expected right-wing takeover forces Tory moderates into the kind of large- scale defection that so damaged Labour in the early 1980s.

While exit polls have got the actual result badly wrong in the past, last night's exit polls from both BBC and ITN gave Labour a majority of more than 150. The BBC poll put Labour on 47 per cent, compared with 29 for the Conservatives, and 18 per cent for the Liberal Democrats.

But the health warning on exit polls is strong. In 1992, as Big Ben chimed the close of polling at10pm, David Dimbleby announced the BBC exit poll predicted the result was "too close to call". According to research conducted throughout polling day five years ago by NOP, the result was going to be a hung Parliament, with the Tories 25 seats short of an overall majority. They won by 21, and held office for the full five years. In 1987, BBC polls had been similarly wayward, predicting a Conservative majority of just 26. Margaret Thatcher won by 102.

Clearly anticipating a Tory defeat, leading Euro-sceptics accused Kenneth Clarke, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, of sabotaging the Conservative election campaign by refusing to allow Mr Major to veto entry into the single European currency.

Across Whitehall, ministerial special advisers were packing in anticipation of defeat. One official at the Treasury said: "We are spring cleaning over here."

With yesterday's voting marked by a high early turnout during a bright and sunny day throughout the country, the recent spate of terrorist scares prompted the first appearance of armed police officers at Tony Blair's polling station in Sedgefield, County Durham.

But it was the moves on the Tory leadership that provided the early indicator of the result. Even before polling opened, at least one Cabinet challenger for the leadership had told broadcasters he was eager to appear over the weekend, with an implicit nudge-and-wink hint that he would be in the running for the succession.

Cabinet contenders had already been beaten to the starting gate by John Redwood, the one man unconstrained by the niceties of waiting for the result. He has already been booked to appear on BBC Radio 4's The World at One programme today, and he is scheduled to star on LWT's Jonathan Dimbleby programme on Sunday, to "discuss the lessons for the Conservative Party".

According to Labour sources, the biggest lesson of the campaign was the way in which the party's machine "ran Central Office ragged" at every turn, in spite of the fact that they had received a leaked copy of Labour's "war book" battle plans.

One senior Labour source said he suspected that the Tories had underplayed their strongest card - the economy - because they were wary of promoting Mr Clarke, for fear of provoking a Euro-sceptic backlash.

The Tory pro-Europeans are ready to launch a fight-back today with Douglas Hurd, the former Foreign Secretary, poised to go the rounds of the broadcasting studios to issue a point-by-point answer to the charges from the Euro-sceptics. With strong Whitehall rumours circulating about Michael Portillo's putative leadership campaign, Ladbrokes yesterday reported heavy betting on Mr Portillo and Mr Heseltine for the succession. They are joint 5-2 favourites.

Brisk polling was reported from around the country and Mr Major said after he had voted in his Huntingdon constituency that the 30-per-cent local turnout was "way above what we'd normally expect". He said it was "a very good omen for democracy when you've got weather like this, on polling day and what looks like a high turnout".