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News Monday, 14 June, 1999, 13:56 GMT 14:56 UK
Labour defeat sparks euro row
Tony Blair: Facing recriminations over campaign
By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Labour's humiliating defeat in the European Parliament elections have re-ignited the heated debate over Britain's attitude to the single currency.

Tory leader William Hague, basking in his first major election victory, came under immediate pressure to toughen his anti-euro policy to rule out ever joining the currency.

And the disastrous showing for Tony Blair led to calls for him to go onto the offensive in support of the euro.

There were also bitter recriminations within the Labour Party with some blaming the prime minister himself for presiding over a lacklustre and arrogant campaign.

The clear support from voters for parties opposed to the single currency - including the UK Independence Party which wants Britain out of Europe - led to claims that the Tories now had an issue with which to hammer the government.

Mr Hague insisted he was not about to change his current line which is to rule out joining the euro for the lifetime of this parliament and the next.

Major breakthrough

But he also signalled he would be making the issue a central plank of the Tories' next general election campaign.

Describing the result as a "major breakthrough" for the Conservative party he said, "this is a winning policy and it's a policy we believe in".

And he warned Labour against trying to "bounce" Britain into the single currency.

William Hague: Celebrating victory
"Political parties who think they can bounce the people of this country into abolishing their currency without debating it properly have had something of a shock in this election, and I think they're in for a bigger shock in future.

"We have struck a blow for the independence of our country and the future of the pound.

"These results show just how out of touch the Labour government is with the wishes of the people of Britain," he said.

Mr Blair, clearly dismayed by the result, admitted he was "disappointed" by his party's showing.

And he made it plan the party would now be examining its policies and campaign strategy - and he refused to rule out a change in the likely timetable of joining the euro.

"These are very disappointing results, I don't pretend otherwise and we have got to listen and reflect on the election.

Big mistake

"We have got to hold firm to the position that we have. I understand totally the concerns people have about Europe, the frustrations about Europe. That is one of the reasons my government is fighting to reform the institutions of Europe.

"But for this country to pull away from Europe all together . . .would be a very big mistake for this country," he said.

But it was clear the result had shaken his policy to take Britain into the euro soon after the next election if the economic conditions are right.

He refused to meet a challenge by pro-Europeans led by Tory Michael Heseltine to head up the all-party Britain in Europe campaign.

He also claimed the Tories had adopted an extreme anti-European policy that would produce short-term gain but long term losses.

Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, whose party did less well than expected, attacked Mr Blair for failing to show any leadership over the issue of Europe and the single currency.

"The prime minister, who has shown such leadership in other areas, has completely failed to show any of those leadership qualities of which he is capable," he said.

And Mr Blair was facing much of the blame for Labour's performance. Campaign co-ordinator Margaret Beckett has also come under attack for deliberately running a low-key campaign and even taking a holiday during the contest.

She may be sacked from her campaigning job as a result, but most Labour MPs will know that the campaign style had been agreed from Downing Street.

What is certain is that the whole issue of the single currency is now going to move back to the centre of the political stage.

The competing wings of the Tory party are bound to re-open their divisions o ver the issue, while Mr Blair will also face demands to either water down his commitment to the euro or start actively campaigning for it.

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Paddy Ashdown: "The prime minister has completely failed to show any of those leadership qualities of which he is capable"
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