Election '97: Blair's Britain is born

Huge majority breaks 18 years of Tory rule
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Tony Blair romped home early today to a formidable Commons majority, breaking 18 years of Conservative rule. But while Michael Heseltine effectively conceded defeat, and Labour began to celebrate victory, the cracks reopened in the Tory ranks - and the race for the party leadership began in earnest.

First off the mark was Michael Portillo, the right-wing Secretary of State for Defence, with an appeal on BBC television for party unity.

That will provoke bitter reaction from the ranks of Conservative moderates, who have watched in dismay as Mr Portillo's Euro-sceptic colleagues have forced Mr Major on to the back foot in an accident-prone and clumsy campaign.

In the first hammer-blow of the night, Labour took the Tories' Birmingham Edgbaston, with a swing of 10 per cent - suggesting a Commons majority of more than 100 in the new Parliament. Edgbaston was Neville Chamberlain's seat in the 1920s and has been solid Conservative ever since.

Early forecasts also suggested Labour gains in Portsmouth North, where a swing of more than 11 per cent was needed; and Crosby, on Merseyside, where a swing of 10 per cent was required.

The first constituency result to be declared was Sunderland South, which was held by Labour's Chris Mullin with a 19,638 majority on a 10.5 per cent swing. A national swing of more than 10 per cent has not been achieved by any party since the 1945 Labour landslide that propelled Clement Attlee's reforming administration into office.

As other early results came in, from safe Labour seats, the swing against the Tories ranged from 7.5 per cent to 10.5 per cent.

With his 44th birthday next Tuesday, Mr Blair will become the youngest prime minister for more than 100 years. He has promised to "make Britain better" and to 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 Labour campaign manager, Peter Mandelson, told BBC1: "It was the transformation, the rebirth of the Labour Party over the last two or three years that finally clinched it for people."

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

Mr Portillo said last night: "I think it takes many people to make a division ... The important thing is that parties do better when they are not divided and that's something the party needs to reflect upon. I think there is a happy medium between the discipline required to keep a party looking credible and the Maoist imposition of control of thought and deed."

While some senior Tories want Mr Major to go without delay, that will be strongly resisted by others who want to save the party from an unseemly and anarchic leadership contest within weeks of a new Parliament assembling - with new MPs arriving at Westminster for the first time.

Mr Heseltine told the BBC that the party should now "regroup, unite and begin the fight back". Asked what he meant by regroup, he said, "Regroup is simply what you do when you have found yourself on the wrong end of election defeat."

The Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, told ITN that the splits in the Tory party over Europe had taken their toll. "You can't have the appearance of disunity without some corrosive impact and we have to assume that's part of the difficulties we face," he said.

After heavy betting yesterday, Ladbrokes put Mr Portillo and Mr Heseltine as joint favourites for the Tory leadership - though a joint ticket could provide the unity that the party now so badly needs to see it through the trauma of defeat.

With early exit polls putting the Liberal Democrats on 18 per cent - a poorer result than in 1983 and 1987 - Paddy Ashdown told Sky News: "We have fought a terrific campaign and I'm looking forward to the result with a great deal of confidence. I never believe in opinion polls but 18 per cent would be an extremely good result."

While exit polls have got the actual result badly wrong in the past, last night's polls on behalf of both the 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.

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

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

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.

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.