The European Elections: Tories 'will stay in double figures'

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The Independent Online
THE TORIES are expected by Labour and Liberal Democrat strategists to lose substantial numbers of seats but still be in 'double figures' after the European elections.

The Conservatives, who hold 32 seats, may see that total cut in half, according to their opponents.

Though such a result would obviously be damaging for the party, a double-figures outcome would not be the disaster that some senior Tories feared, and it would allow John Major to escape further pressure until the autumn, when the impact of the new Labour leader would be known.

Some of Mr Major's closest friends have privately expressed fears that the Tories could be reduced to a rump of eight seats - but those rumours may have been circulated to put a gloss on the defeat and cushion Mr Major against renewed calls for his resignation.

The main gains will go to Labour, although none of the parties was prepared to make any public estimates of the results. Charles Kennedy, president of the Liberal Democrats, said the results were too difficult to predict, but the Liberal Democrats believe they will make their first gains, alongside a swing towards Labour.

After being blown off course by the row over Mr Major's attack on beggars, the Conservatives used their campaign press conference to get their European election campaign back on to their key themes of the alleged abandonment of the veto, and the threat to jobs posed by the Social Chapter, supported by the Liberal Democrats and Labour.

Jack Cunningham, the shadow Foreign Secretary, told a campaign meeting in London last night that Mr Major had 'flipped' on beggars, and put his leadership on the line by making the European elections a referendum on the Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, Mr Kennedy told a Liberal Democrat press conference: 'Mr Major will live to regret that strategic mistake.' He accused the Tories of 'trying to play the classic Thatcherite trick of being both the Government and the opposition' by opposing European partners on a range of issues.