Blair tries to reassure MPs but rules out Iraq apology

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair told Labour MPs last night to hold their nerve after the European Parliament elections resulted in the party's worst performance in a national vote since 1918.

The Prime Minister won an informal vote of confidence at the weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party after insisting that the party's 23 per cent share of the vote would not prevent it winning a third successive general election triumph next year.

Mr Blair rejected growing demands from Labour MPs for him to apologise over the Iraq war, which ministers have blamed for the party's poor showing in the council and European elections. One senior cabinet minister said: "He won't say sorry. He can't. It would bring the whole thing tumbling down on him."

The Prime Minister admitted that Labour had suffered a "bad set of results," adding: "The public needs to know that we are controlling events, not events controlling us."

He argued that the spectacular rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), would have little impact on the central battle between Labour and the Tories. He said there was "no desire" in the country for a Tory government, saying that the Tories had no "big idea".

He reassured his MPs by unveiling Labour's new theme - "quality and choice" in "personalised" public services. Five-year plans for health, education, transport and crime will be launched in the next few weeks.

UKIP won 16 per cent of the votes, raising its number of MEPs rose from three to 12. Labour took 19 seats with 23 per cent of the vote, the Tories took 27 seats, but saw their share of the vote fall by 9 percentage points to 27 per cent, their lowest since the 1832 Great Reform Act. The Liberal Democrats took 12 seats with 15 per cent of the vote, up by two points.

Mr Blair's failure to grasp the nettle on Europe was criticised as the party began its inquest into election results.

Chris Patten, the European commissioner and former Tory chairman, said: " I do not doubt that the Prime Minister was entirely genuine in arguing that he wants to make Britain comfortable with its role in Europe, but what has happened? How do the speeches of the Chancellor of the Exchequer help that process? How does it help to conduct diplomacy in terms of red lines and last ditches?

"The Prime Minister has made a number of very good speeches about Europe - mainly outside Britain. He is going to have to start fighting for a vision of Europe. The Conservative Party's record speaks for itself."

Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader and another member of the Brussels Commission, urged Mr Blair to launch a drive to win the support of the British people for the proposed EU constitution, on which the Prime Minister has promised a referendum.

"The battle is joined and we had better get stuck in," he said. "We will do it by candour, explanation, fact and destroying myths and legends."

Mr Blair's official spokesman said: "The Prime Minister recognises that there are those who are sceptical about the benefits of Europe. [He] accepts that there has to be a strong argument put of the Government's position on Europe and that will be put if a treaty is agreed. But what's important is to have a considered, rational debate about what's in this country's long-term interest."