SENIOR MINISTERS last night sought to contain civil war in the Conservative Party as the Government suffered a heavy defeat in the European elections - on a bad night for incumbents across the continent.
With the surprising exception of Germany, voters lashed out at their governments from London to Athens. As a result, the Socialists will consolidate their hold on the European Parliament, with the centre-right fragmenting.
Britain's leftward turn seemed set to make a decisive difference to the parliament's political colouring. But Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who faces re-election in October, seemed to have scored an unexpected victory over the Social Democrats in Germany.
Early projections by the Socialist Party last night gave them 203-212 seats in the new 567-seat legislature, up from 198 in the outgoing 518-member body. The projections for the European Peoples' Party, the centre-right grouping with which the Conservatives are associated, varied from 130 to 177.
The turnout seemed likely to be the lowest since direct elections were introduced in 1989.
The losses in Britain came as a severe blow to John Major, and left the Tory leadership seeking crumbs of comfort. It was the Tories' worst defeat in a national election since coming to office, but it could have been worse, if Labour's strong showing had not stopped the Liberal Democrats from gaining more seats in the South.
Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, said earlier that Mr Major would not resign as a result of the defeat, and sought to head off any threat of a challenge to his leadership in the autumn. 'It won't jeopardise his position . . . . The leadership of the Conservative Party is not at risk at this occasion or in the future.'
Mr Hurd said he believed the party had experienced a 'sea change' over Mr Major's leadership in recent weeks. However, some Conservative MEPs blamed the Prime Minister for running a negative campaign to appease the Tory Euro-sceptics, which failed to capture the support of mainstream Tory voters on Europe.
'Trying to hold everyone together in a broad church blunted the message,' said Peter Price, Tory MEP for London South East.
The first shots were fired by the Europhobes, led by Norman Lamont, the former Chancellor, with a demand that the Prime Minister should harden his stance against a single currency. The European issue did divide the Conservative Party, Mr Lamont said. 'There is no pretending that it doesn't. It is potentially as divisive as the whole area of tariff reform early in this century.'
Tory MPs in the Postive European group said the Europhobes had to be 'faced up to' before the general election. 'They are not only dividing the Conservative Party but in danger of destroying it as an electoral force,' said one.
The post-mortem on the defeats is likely to lead to more bickering.
The pattern of voter anger was repeated throughout the Twelve, with gains for opposition parties in Spain, Belgium, the Irish Republic, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Greece and Denmark. The political hue of the beneficiaries varied. The Socialists were picking up seats where centre-right parties held sway, but a variety of other parties - neo-fascists, greens, anti-Maastricht groupings of both right and left and single-issue parties - were making gains.
The left, which dominated the outgoing European Parliament, will be in a commanding lead in the new parliament. Though its percentage of overall votes and seats was slipping, it will hold the balance of power.
The European Peoples' Party, long dominated by Christian Democrat centre-rightists, will either have to absorb more conservative parties from France, Portugal and Italy or see itself enormously reduced in influence.Reuse content