Britain goes to the polls: Labour campaign team scents victory: Major blames the media: Colin Brown makes a tour of the winners and losers of the five by-elections

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The Independent Online
THERE WAS a genuine feeling of 'we're on our way' yesterday in the Labour election campaign team.

'We are winning back the blue-collar Tory voters. We are getting back the voters who went with the sale of council houses,' said one Labour strategist.

Tory advisers said the results pointed to a harrowing night for the Tories tomorrow in the European elections.

'We know what the Euro results are going to be,' said one Tory MP. 'Bad.' Just how bad was the worrying question for John Major and the Tory high command.

Sir Norman Fowler refused to hold a post mortem press conference.

On radio, Kenneth Clarke did little to conceal Tory worries, angering some of Mr Major's Cabinet supporters by describing the Government as 'deeply unpopular'.

'It was not helpful. I wonder if it was deliberately unhelpful,' said one ministerial source.

Across Smith Square at Transport House, Labour's Jack Straw, who moves on today to become Tony Blair's campaign manager, opened a bottle of champagne for a photocall with Labour's three victorious by-election candidates.

Mr Straw said the Eastleigh result, where Labour's vote held up in spite of the tactical squeeze, was evidence that voters could vote Labour in the Tory heartlands and still defeat the Tories.

The Tory share of the vote fell by 24 per cent. Mr Straw said if it had been as a result of a low turnout, the Tory vote should have fallen by one-third to 27,000, but it had dropped to 13,000.

Many had gone to the Liberal Democrats, but Labour said some had transferred across to them. That did not happen in Newbury and Christchurch where the Labour vote crashed in tactical voting to defeat the Tories.

The Liberal Democrat London press conference was strangely subdued. The leader, Paddy Ashdown was celebrating the victory in Eastleigh, but Matthew Taylor, the Liberal Democrat campaign co-ordinator, admitted concern that Labour's strong showing could split the vote and stop the Liberal Democrats winning as many seats as they had hoped in the European elections.

Mr Major is spending tomorrow in his constituency before travelling to London for the European results. Conservative Party strategists believe he has managed to kill the speculation, which intensified after the local election defeats, that he will be forced to resign.

The Prime Minister made it clear that he would not stand down, whatever the result. But having put himself at the head of the European election campaigns, he is likely to take the blame.

In his final rally of the European campaign, he blamed the press for failing to get the 'good news' across to the voters. He told his London audience: 'We need to find a way to break through the media somehow.'

In a cry from the heart, Mr Major said: 'The Gettysburg Address would never have got on television.' And he wondered aloud: 'What would they have done about William Pitt the Younger's great war speeches?'

The Prime Minister may need more than the oratory of Lincoln and Pitt. Mr Straw, Labour's Euro-campaign co-ordinator said: 'This is a verdict on the whole Conservative Party. Their anger is not just reserved for Major.'

(Photograph omitted)