Labour fears UKIP poll victory

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Labour Party managers fear the tiny UK Independence Party could emerge as the sensational victors when votes are announced in the European election today. If so, it will be the first time in British history that a national election has been won by a fringe party with no sitting MPs.

Labour Party managers fear the tiny UK Independence Party could emerge as the sensational victors when votes are announced in the European election today. If so, it will be the first time in British history that a national election has been won by a fringe party with no sitting MPs.

Labour's exit polls show that UKIP has polled "disproportionately heavily" in the south-west of England, making it possible that its share of the national vote may be higher than any other party's.

Labour's polling also shows the Conservatives ahead of Labour, with the Liberal Democrats in fourth place. One senior Labour source: "UKIP could be first, second, or they could be third. It's difficult to tell, because we don't know exactly where their votes are coming from. A lot are coming from people who don't normally vote at all."

UKIP is forecasting that it will come third, with about 20 per cent of the vote, close behind Labour. The Tories believe that in East Anglia, UKIP will be neck and neck with the Liberal Democrats, ahead of Labour. In the local council elections last week, UKIP took fourth place with about 15 per cent of the total.

In the short term, a strong performance by UKIP will create more problems for the Tory leader Michael Howard than for Tony Blair.

It could even strengthen Mr Blair's hand when he goes to Brussels next week to negotiate the final draft of the proposed European constitution. He can use growing anti-EU feeling at home as an argument to ensure that issues such as tax, social policy and defence continue to be controlled by national governments rather than becoming EU responsibility.

But over the longer term, the growing numbers backing a party which wants Britain to pull out of the EU will add to the Government's problems next year, when Tony Blair is committed to calling a referendum on the EU constitution.

The prospect of a UKIP victory led to fresh infighting in the Tory party last night with Iain Duncan Smith's former chief aide launching a stinging attack on Michael Howard's European campaign. Nick Wood, who was the Conservative's media director under Mr Duncan Smith and William Hague, called on the Tory leader to harden his anti-European policies.

Writing in The Independent on Sunday, Mr Wood states: "UKIP's success has opened a European flank that Howard will have to close."

Mr Howard was seen as a hardliner on Europe when a minister in John Major's cabinet, but party activists now accuse him of being too willing to compromise.

His handling of Europe has been praised by the former deputy prime minister, Michael Heseltine, one of the most ardent pro-Europeans in the party. But he warned Mr Howard not to "pander' to UKIP. Interviewed for today's GMTV Sunday Programme, he said: "Their policies are a disaster for this country. I can't think of a sillier way for British foreign policy to be conducted than actually to remove the thing that America wants most from us, which is an influence in Europe."

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