Tories face defeat in heartland

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The Independent Online
THE CONSERVATIVES are facing a potential disaster in this week's European elections which could leave them with between two and six seats, according to an academic study, commissioned by the Independent on Sunday.

The findings, by Strathclyde University, are based on 8,990 interviews conducted by Gallup last month and put the Conservatives nationally on 22.8 per cent, just behind the Liberal Democrats on 23.1 per cent with Labour on 29.2 per cent.

If that figure was reflected uniformly across the country the Conservatives - who currently have 32 MEPs - would be left with six seats, two behind the Liberal Democrats, with Labour on 69.

However the regional breakdown shows that Conservative support is falling most heavily - by 23 per cent - in the Tories' southern heartland. That phenomenon could, theoretically, leave the Conservatives with a rump of two seats: Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire East and London South and Surrey East.

This regional projection gives the Liberal Democrats 12 seats, including all the South-

western corner of England apart from Bristol. That, it should be noted, is better than even the most optimistic Liberal Democrat predictions.

Conservative Central Office will argue that the polls were wrong in the 1992 general election and that a possible factor is that more Tory voters refuse to say how they are going to vote. Gallup, like other pollsters, has been experimenting with ways of overcoming this problem.

One answer is to assume that people who refuse to say how they will vote will actually vote for the party they said they voted for last time. Gallup have recalculated their figures on this basis, adding four points to Tory support and reducing Labour's by two and a half points. But even on these figures the prospects for the Tories on Thursday look grim. Taking into account the regional variation the Conservatives would still win only 10 seats, just two more than the Liberal Democrats.

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, will this week step up their pressure in the South and South-west with a pounds 25,000 regional newspaper campaign and a mailshot aimed at winning over Labour voters. The theme of the campaign will be that 'John Major wants you to vote Labour on June 9'.

In a move which reflected Tory fears about a Liberal Democrat surge the Conservatives hit back with a Saatchi & Saatchi advertising campaign depicting Liberal Democrats votes being siphoned, along with Labour ones, to European socialists. The Prime Minister claimed in a letter to supporters votes for Labour and the Liberal Democrats would mean the creation of a federal state.

Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury and a leading Cabinet Eurosceptic, yesterday rejected accusations that he had played no role in the European election campaign. Mr Portillo - who praised Lady Thatcher's contributions to Conservative European policy as well as Mr Major's - said that, by Thursday he will 'have been in 13 constituencies and will have devoted six days' to campaigning.

Mr Portillo also said that he had 'never much favoured' referendums and believed that, should the country face a decision over a single European currency, it would probably be made by Parliament.

Jack Straw, Labour's European elections campaign manager, said: 'I am glad to know that Labour taunts work and, at long last, we have embarrassed Mr Portillo to turn up. We are looking forward to the return of Peter Lilley (Secretary of State for Social Security) who remains holidaying in France despite his xenophobic politics'.

John Curtice is senior lecturer in Politics at Stratclyde University and deputy director of the Centre for Research into Election and Social Trends.