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Monday, June 14, 1999 Published at 02:00 GMT 03:00 UK

Blair misery in Euro poll

Blair: the honeymoon is over

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Tony Blair has suffered a massive setback after the Tories swept to victory in the European parliament elections.

In an historically low turnout, William Hague saw his party beating Labour into second place as voters gave the single currency the thumbs down.

Huge numbers of Labour voters stayed at home or switched their support to other parties, handing a surprising victory to the Tories.

The poll was the first national ballot to be held under a full-blooded system of proportional representation which ensured the Tories and smaller parties would do better than under the old first-past-the-post system.

But the result outstripped even William Hague's wildest dreams and vindicated his anti-single currency strategy.

Jack Cunnigham: "We failed to motivate people"
It represented a huge blow to Tony Blair who had been accused of deliberately running a low-key campaign and it will lead to some bitter recriminations over the handling of the contest.

And it must throw a question mark over the government's policy of holding a referendum on joining the euro swiftly after the next election.


The result was also a disappointment for the Liberal Democrats, who increased their number of seats in the parliament but by far less than they had hoped.

[ image: Single currency fears]
Single currency fears
Many were blaming their poor showing on the unofficial alliance with Labour whose support for the single currency clearly hit its standing.

The fledgling UK Independence Party, which wants Britain to withdraw from Europe, also did extremely well - winning three seats and suggesting there is a strong anti-European faction in the country.

A BBC forecast based on the votes cast by constituencies showed that if the voting was repeated at a general election, Mr Blair's historic Commons majority would be wiped out with the Tories winning 355 seats compared to Labour's 259, the Liberal Democrats just three, the Scottish nationalists 14 and Plaid Cymru 10.

Labour, which had been expecting losses, confessed disappointment at the result but put the low turnout down to the "politics of contentment".

And campaign leader Margaret Beckett claimed other issues like the war with Belgrade had overshadowed the election.

But it was clear that many voters were also disillusioned with the government and registered their protest by either refusing to vote or switching to other parties, finally ending one of the longest political honeymoons in history.

It followed the dismally low turnout of under 20% in the by-election in Leeds Central where Labour's Hilary Benn only narrowly beat the Liberal Democrats.

The turnout in the European election was particularly low in Labour heartlands and higher in natural Tory areas, showing widespread support for Mr Hague's stand on the euro.

Tory splits

And the result is a huge boost for Mr Hague who has been struggling to overcome deep internal Tory splits over Europe.

He will see it as vindication of his policy of ruling out British entry into the single currency for the lifetime of both this and the next parliament and his "In Europe but not run by Europe" campaign.

It will strengthen his hand when his policy comes under attack from the Europhile wing of the party led by Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine.

They had agreed not to rock the boat in the run up to the poll, but will feel free to speak out now the campaign is over.

Mr Hague deliberately attempted to turn the election into a mini referendum the single currency and the strategy clearly worked.

His position as Tory leader had already been strengthened by the good showing in the recent local elections and the advances in the European election will further boost his position.

For Mr Blair the result will add to doubts about his policy of giving Britain a referendum on entry into the single currency soon after the next general election.

He appeared to be cooling on the policy during the campaign and the result will lead to fresh calls for a re-think.

The election has also thrown a new question mark over Mr Blair's pledge to the Liberal Democrats to consider adopting PR for Westminster elections.

That policy was already under strain after the elections to the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly where Labour was denied outright majorities.

And that could threaten the alliance with the Liberal Democrats which was already likely to be weakened by Paddy Ashdown's successor.

There will now been a Labour inquest after allegations they failed to campaign strongly. The campaign boss Margaret Beckett was criticised for going on holiday during the contest, but the prime minister also faced allegations that he ran a lacklustre and complacent contest.

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