European Elections: Tories sweep to Euro victory

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR suffered a severe setback early today as the Conservatives made sweeping gains in the European Parliament elections.

As Labour launched an inquest into its worst electoral performance under Mr Blair's leadership, senior Tories claimed their Euro-sceptic campaign had struck a chord with the British public. They suggested the results would force Mr Blair to delay his plans to join the single currency soon after the next general election.

The Tory advance was repeated across Europe where the centre right was set to win control of the European Parliament from the socialist grouping.

After the early results last night, the BBC predicted the Tories would win 36 per cent of the vote, a significant recovery on their 31 per cent at the 1997 general election. It forecast that Labour would win a disastrously low 28 per cent, a huge drop from its 43 per cent in 1997, while the Liberal Democrats' 13 per cent predicted share was down on their 17 per cent at the general election.

Labour had hoped to win a higher share of the vote than the Tories, as Mr Blair managed in last month's local elections.

The BBC predicted the Tories would win 36 seats in the Strasbourg Parliament, Labour 29 and the Liberal Democrats 10. But the Tories forecast they would do even better, and Labour worse, after the final picture is known. Results in Scotland and Northern Ireland will be declared this afternoon.

After results from nine of the 10 regions in England and Wales were announced early today, the Tories had won 30 seats, Labour 22 and the Liberal Democrats eight.

The UK Independence Party, which wants to withdraw from the EU, confirmed the Euro-sceptic tide by capturing a seat in the South West, where the Liberal Democrats did badly in their heartland, and landing others in the South East and Eastern regions.

In Wales, Plaid Cymru added to Mr Blair's woes by winning two seats, the same as Labour, while the Tories won one. The Green Party won its first British seat in the Euro Parliament in the South East.

The Tories claimed Labour was heading for its worst result since their rout under Michael Foot at the 1983 general election. But Labour insisted that the 23 per cent turn-out last Thursday, the lowest in a nationwide election in Britain, meant the results were "scarcely a triumph for the Conservatives".

A Labour spokesman said: "This may be a short-term tactical boost but it represents a major strategic error. The British public will not support a narrow, nationalistic, xenophobic party."

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: "Pro-European Britain is paying a heavy price for a Prime Minister who has completely failed to give a lead [on Europe] and a Tory leader who has abandoned Conservatism for the nationalistic right." Mr Ashdown warned that the use of proportional representation for the first time in a British-wide election, may have saved Mr Blair's party from "a real disaster".

The BBC calculated that if Thursday's election had been fought under the first-past-the-post system the Tories would have won a landslide victory, winning 67 seats in the Parliament and Labour just 15 seats.

The results will encourage William Hague, the Conservative Party leader, to make the euro the central plank of the Tory campaign at the general election. The Tories hailed the Euro elections as a "personal triumph" for Mr Hague, as he had put the single currency at the heart of the campaign.

The first results last night pointed to a swing to centre-right parties across Europe, which looked likely to tip the balance in the Strasbourg Parliament in their favour for the first time in 20 years of direct elections. Jose Maria Gil-Robes, the Parliament's president, predicted the centre- right European People's Party would win between 219 and 215 seats in the 626-member assembly, with the Socialists, until now the largest group, winning between 185 and 190.