European Elections: The policies are rejected, the people are still there

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The Independent Online
THE SECRET of the boxes was that John Major's brand of populism succeeded in reaching enough - but only just enough - of the core Tory voters he was targeting. This was Labour's night, and, statistically, a terrible result for the Conservatives. But politics is about expectations too, and the Prime Minister has escaped the kind of political implosion that would have finished his career. Labour's advance is worrying enough for ministers, though no one should base any theories on the soft ground of a turnout this low. Senior Tory figures ponder the possibilities of a Blair-led Labour Party with something approaching fatalism - a mixture of stoicism and, perhaps, sheer weariness, which inclines them to trudge forward on set tracks, whatever the mid-term reverses. What will happen, will happen. At some basic level, there is a feeling that it would be simply rather naff to ditch the Prime Minister now. And even those of his ministers who are losing faith in his ability to win back the deserting millions have no sweat- soaked nightmares about Labour. They have ceded power before to the socialists and have always assumed it would happen again. Labour victories are unfortunate career- breaks, but they are, even after 15 years, dimly remembered as a natural and acceptable phenomenon.

No, what really scared thinking Tories was the yellow peril, the slow but frightening advance of Liberal Democracy, carrying the ultimate weapon of voting reform in its backpack. A more severe Lib Dem threat would have turned a brewing backbench revolt against Mr Major into an almost inevitable uprising come the winter. The Lib Dems had a couple of good victories. But they performed nothing like as well as the polls had predicted. Why? The best guess is that Labour, boosted by the sympathetic coverage following John Smith's death and by the sort of pre-nuptial media honeymoon being enjoyed by Tony Blair, is riding a tide of national support big enough to swamp Lib Dems even in the South. This may all be transient - the Newham defection, and the Tower Hamlets fracas were recent bad news for Mr Ashdown. But Liberal Democrat strategists will be wondering worriedly this morning whether their share of the vote is an omen of things to come as Mr Blair gets into his stride. For the Tories, this is much better news than their own performance. It is a gleam of hope. For Michael Heseltine was right: there are no alternative policies that this government can credibly turn to, whoever leads it. The style can change - and it certainly needs to - but the substance is set.

The message of these results on EU policy, the purported theme of the campaign, was deeply obscure. Mr Major had demanded to be judged on his policy for a looser European Union - multi-track, Conservative, 'common sense'. He was. So can we expect him to change it - and if so, to what? To the free-market nationalism the 'bastards' yearn for? Or to 'ever-closer union' with Sir Edward Heath? Of course not. He has changed before, but no politician can eat so many words so quickly. The problem for Mr Major's enemies in his party is that, in terms of broad policy thrust, they offer nothing plausible, only oppositional sloganising. They want him out, and strike a chord with the public there; but their second idea, 'us, instead', is less popular.

So it has been a curious night, the strange spawn of a hybrid election campaign, partly about the Prime Minister, partly not. The policies are rejected; the people still there. Finally, though the Tories will be hugely relieved by the Lib-Dem performance, and though the extreme melodramas of the pollsters did not come to pass, let us remember the obvious. Rarely in modern British politics has a government so comprehensively run out of popular support, so early, as this one.