Election '97: 'I will not let you down'

Tony Blair's Britain is born after historic landslide victory
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The Independent Online
Tony Blair romped home early today to a landslide Commons majority, breaking 18 years of Conservative rule. The man who will today become Prime Minister told supporters at his Sedgefield constituency count: "The greatest pleasure I have is to serve you with all my heart and all my energy. I will not not let you down."

As the first large numbers of results came in, it was already clear that Labour had won a stunning, historic victory, wiping out the Conservative candidates across swathes of the country and defeating some of the most eminent Tories in Britain. The Liberal Democrats too had an exceptionally successful night, as their ruthless targeting of winnable seats paid off.

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 starting blocks 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.

Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and a prime target for back-biting Tory attack, today shared a Labour analysis of the reason for Conservative defeat, when he said: "There's been far too little about our economy and far too much about Europe. if we had had more about the economy and less about Europe and a lot less about sleaze, we might have done better."

The first Cabinet-ranking Tory to fall was Michael Forsyth, in Stirling, which presaged humiliation for other senior Conservatives. And in the first hammer-blow of the night for the Tories, Labour seized Birmingham Edgbaston, with a swing of 10 per cent - suggesting a Commons majority of more than 100 in the new Parliament. Edgbaston, once Neville Chamberlain's seat, has been Conservative since 1922.

There was a 14 per cent swing in Birmingham Hall Green, another Labour gain deep in Tory territory. One of the biggest personal sensations was the defeat of David Mellor in Putney with a swing to Labour of 11 per cent.

Labour gains from the Conservatives included Portsmouth North, on a14 per cent swing; Crosby on a swing of 18 per cent; Basildon with a swing of 15 per cent; Wolverhampton SW, on a 10 per cent swing, Norwich North, with 11 per cent; and Battersea, which went Labour on a swing of 10 per cent - the first loss of a government minister.

But Labour's gains were not all from the Tories. They also snatched Richdale and Oldham East and Saddleworth from the Liberal Democrats - who achieved consolatory gains from the Tories in Hazel Grove, Southport, Sheffield Hallam, Portsmouth South, and Northavon.

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.

Early results were noteworthy for the large number of Labour women MPs entering the Commons for the first time.

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 leadership.