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Last Updated: Monday, 14 June, 2004, 09:40 GMT 10:40 UK
Analysis: Tories' Euro blow
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Michael Howard will be deeply disappointed by his failure to make anything approaching a breakthrough in the European elections.

Michael Howard
Howard has some room for optimism
The Tories appear to have suffered worst of all the main parties at the hands of the UK Independence Party.

And it has deprived Mr Howard of the opportunity to claim he has continued to build a launch pad for the next general election - as he did after the local polls.

Probably most worrying for him, however, is the possibility that UKIP's success will reopen all the damaging old divisions over Europe inside the Tory party.

There is a section of the Tory party, both in the country and in Westminster, that is closer to UKIP than to Mr Howard on the issue of Europe - he even had to deal with some of them before the poll.

And there will now be new pressure on him from the Eurosceptic wing of his party to harden up his policy on the EU.

Right policy

One of Mr Howard's successes as leader has been to keep the lid on his internal divisions, so any resurgence by the Eurosceptics will give Tony Blair a club to beat him with in the coming months.

But the opposition leader has insisted he will not go down that route. He believes he has the right policy on Europe - both for the country and to keep his party together - and is not about to panic in the face of UKIP's rise.

UKIP hit all main parties
As an aside, there will also be those in the party who will criticise him for giving UKIP too much credibility before the poll.

And Mr Howard does have some reason for optimism in the face of what was otherwise a deeply disappointing result which took much of the shine off his local election wins.

First is the simple fact that Euro election results never translate through into the following general election.

That does not mean they never can, but even UKIP seems to accept that it is a single issue party and, come the big one, many of its supporters will return to their traditional political homes as other domestic issues take centre stage.

Political voice

And the good news there for Mr Howard is that, as the Tories suffered most at the hands of UKIP in this poll, so it has most to gain at the general election.

Secondly, there is some polling evidence to suggest that large numbers of those who voted UKIP do not actually want Britain to withdraw from the EU.

They were probably expressing deep reservations about all the major political parties and sending out a strong anti-establishment signal.

But it is still far from certain that there is a real, widespread demand for British withdrawal from the EU. The minority who do believe that, however, have at least found a political voice.

Lastly for Mr Howard is the possibility that the Labour party will be pitched into near crisis over its performance in both the local and Euro elections.

He must be hoping that while he will suffer in the short term, it is quite possible that the longer term damage will be done to Labour and, more significantly, Tony Blair's leadership.

Conservative Leader, Michael Howard
"I think UKIP has come up with the wrong answer"



Blair's big task
Labour leader needs to reassure his MPs after European election disappointment




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