European Elections: Britain turns to Labour: 3am news: Only Lib Dems' patchy performance saves Tories from European poll wipe-out

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LABOUR won a handsome victory in the European elections early today after a disappointingly patchy performance by the Liberal Democrats helped to prevent the Tory wipe-out that the most pessimistic Conservative MPs had feared.

The results were still a crushing blow for the Tories, leaving the party with a still smaller base in the European Parliament than it had after its losses in the last European elections in 1989, and a lower share of the vote than in any national election this century.

In its best performance since its previous peak in the mid-1960s Labour advanced relentlessly down from its Northern heartlands through the hitherto unpromising territory of middle England to win signal victories in the Southern Home Counties and London. Labour scored a spectacular gain in Essex West and Hertfordshire East, took the Thatcherite stronghold of Essex South, and swept through London, gaining control of nine out of ten of the capital's European seats, with more than half of the popular vote.

Labour said a repeat of the national results in a general election - giving the party 46 per cent of the vote at 3am - would guarantee victory.

Despite the defeat for the Tories - which cost Sir Christopher Prout, leader of the Tory MEPs and Bill Newton-Dunn the MEPs' chairman, their seats in Herefordshire and Shropshire and Lincolnshire and Humberside South - the results are almost certainly good enough to ensure that John Major will be reprieved as leader - at least until any challenge in November.

The turnout, generally lower in the North than in the South, varied wildly between 30 and nearly 50 per cent.

Labour's projected seats in the new Strasbourg parliament were 62, up 13 on 1989; the Tories were expected to get 18 seats, down 14; the Liberal Democrats broke through, winning two European seats for the first time.

The first Labour gain from the Tories, on a 10.5 per cent swing, came at Essex South - sixth in Labour's list of target seats and containing six Tory parliamentary constituencies, including the potentially glittering prize of Basildon. . It was swiftly followed by a gain in Leicester, top of the list of seats Labour hoped to win with a lower, 6.5 per cent, swing. Labour also gained Northamptonshire and Blaby with a 26,000 majority and even, significantly, Norfolk, seventh in its list of target seats. All the Northamptonshire parliamentary constituencies are Tory.

Labour said the figures showed it would win a general election. Margaret Beckett, the party leader, said: 'We are eating into their core vote, that is the message of tonight's election results. People are seeing in the South of Britain that if they want to get rid of this government they have to go for the alternative government and that is the Labour Party.'

But Sir Norman Fowler, chairman of the Conservative Party, said: 'I don't think it's a rout. What it marks is what could be the start of the recovery as far as the Conservative Party is concerned. It would appear we have kept seats against a very strong Liberal challenge and if anyone is disappointed now I would think it would be the Liberal Democrats.'

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: 'The Liberal Democrat strength is increasing in the West and South-west.' But he blamed the Labour vote for 'saving the Tories. . . Where we have failed to beat the Conservatives, it is because the Labour Party vote has saved the Conservative Party's bacon'.

The Liberal Democrats took Somerset and North Devon with a 22,500 majority, toppling Margaret Daly, the long-standing Tory MEP, and sending tremors of fear through Tory Westminster constituencies such as Taunton, Somerton and Frome, and Weston-super-Mare. And they took Cornwall and West Plymouth by a majority of nearly 30,000. But their national 16 per cent share of the vote fell markedly short of Mr Ashdown's hopes.

Amid signs that the Tories were doing significantly better than the worst predictions, Major loyalists argued that the vote had swung towards the Government in the closing days of the campaign, thanks to the clarity and consistency of Mr Major's emphasis on a 'flexible Europe'.

Even Sir George Gardiner, chairman of right-wing 92 group of Tory MPs, said: 'The results could have been a good deal worse, but I still think they are pretty appalling . . . The irony is that John Major on the European issue actually managed to reflect what the general populace wanted him to say.'

(Photograph omitted)