Labour and Tories share dangerous complacency

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In my part of north London, supporters of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) attached their stickers to the St George's flags which supporters of the England football team were sporting on their cars.

In my part of north London, supporters of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) attached their stickers to the St George's flags which supporters of the England football team were sporting on their cars.

People would have removed them if they had been put there by the British National Party. But they didn't bother. UKIP seemed pretty harmless, even if they didn't agree with them.

The timing of the start of Euro 2004 was fortunate for UKIP, ensuring the usual media-driven wave of nationalism ahead of last Thursday's European elections. Yesterday, UKIP had a lot more to celebrate than the England fans.

There was nothing for the Tories or Labour to cheer. They took comfort from each other's problems, dismissed UKIP as a flash in the pan and told their MPs not to lose their nerve.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, upset some Labour colleagues when he said he was "mortified" by the council election results. This was off message: the official line was that the Tories had not done well enough. Yet perhaps a bit more Blunkett-style honesty would make the established parties less vulnerable to protest votes.

True, the European election results should be kept in perspective. After the Tories' victory under William Hague in 1999, number-crunchers in the House of Commons library worked out what would happen if the European results were repeated at the following general election. The result: Tories 352 seats, Labour 261, Liberal Democrats three.

The actual result in 2001 was: Tories 166, Labour 413, Liberal Democrats 52.

So we shouldn't read too much into the European elections. The local election results are a better guide to the general election expected next May. But the Euro poll cannot be ignored and has big implications for the main two parties.

On the face of it, the Tories have more to worry about. They hoped to get 42 per cent of the votes. Anything above the 40 per cent mark would have allowed Michael Howard to claim his party had a chance of winning the next general election. But they got 27 per cent.

It was a frustrating first electoral test as party leader. But Mr Howard was determined not to make the same mistake as Mr Hague, who would almost certainly have tried to see off the UKIP threat by hardening the Tory line. Mr Howard decided to "take a hit" now rather than reduce his party's prospects at the general election.

A YouGov survey for Sky News suggests he was right. Tory supporters favour UKIP's policy of pulling out of the EU by a margin of 47 per cent to 40 per cent. But 51 per cent of the population as a whole want to stay in and only 33 per cent want to leave.

But there is no guarantee, as the Tories argued yesterday, that natural Conservatives will return home at the general election. The Tories will have to win them back.

It is convenient for both the Tories and Labour to dismiss the UKIP advance as a mid-term protest of no long-term significance. But they both sounded complacent yesterday.

Labour cannot assume that people who have made their protest over Iraq will have forgiven Mr Blair by next May. Mr Blair may well find that his problems go much deeper than "Iraq". There is a lot of convincing to do on public services.

The European results will make it even harder for Mr Blair to "sell" the EU constitution he is expected to agree at an EU summit starting on Thursday. His offer of a referendum on it will help him to neutralise Europe as an issue at the general election, just as his promised one on the single currency scuppered Mr Hague's attempt to play the European card in 2001. That is why Mr Blair offered a plebiscite.

Again, Mr Blair sacrificed his genuinely pro-EU instincts for Labour's electoral needs. By failing to make the case for Europe, the Prime Minister has left a vacuum which Eurosceptic parties have filled. It is difficult to see now how Mr Blair could win his constitution referendum.

Despite Mr Blair's desire to end Britain's "half-in, half-out" relationship with Europe, he has now been frightened off. The question now is not whether to join the single currency, but whether to remain in the EU at all. It is difficult to see how Mr Blair's legacy on Europe will not be a sorry one.