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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 June, 2004, 17:03 GMT 18:03 UK
Blair defiant on Europe and Iraq
Tony Blair
The prime minister insists there will be no change of direction

Tony Blair has insisted he will not be forced to change direction by Labour's poor showing at last week's elections.

The prime minister said he was not "deaf to the voice of the electorate" but was convinced his decision to go to war in Iraq had been right.

And despite the UK Independence Party's gains in the European elections, he said he would not allow Britain to be "marginalised in Europe".

At his monthly news conference, he also promised a gear change on NHS reforms.

Eurosceptic threat

Labour and the Conservatives suffered their worst results for decades in the European elections, with UKIP more than doubling its 1999 vote to take 16% of the vote, pushing the Lib Dems into fourth place.

Tory leader Michael Howard has told his MPs he will not be blown off course by the elections.

  VOTE MEPs  
PARTY +/- % % +/-* TOTAL  
CON
-9.0
26.7
-8
27
LAB
-5.4
22.6
-6
19
UKIP
9.2
16.1
10
12
LD
2.3
14.9
2
12
GRN
0.0
6.3
2
2
BNP
3.9
4.9
0
0
RESP
1.5
1.5
0
0
SNP
-1.3
1.4
0
2
PC
-0.9
1.0
0
1
SSP
0.0
0.4
0
0
OTH
3.2
4.6
+1
3
*Seat change is adjusted to allow a direct comparison with the results from the 1999 election

UKIP quadrupled its number of MEPs from three to 12 with its best showing in the East Midlands, where it came within 0.3% of beating the Tories.

The Eurosceptic party's advances have put extra pressure on the prime minister as he tries to secure a deal on the proposed EU constitution.

Mr Blair said he wanted the right deal for Britain to emerge from the talks.

He said withdrawing from the EU, as advocated by UKIP, would be an "act of extraordinary foolishness".

"What we will not do is to marginalise Britain in Europe simply for the sake of it," he vowed.

He added: "No politician can afford to be deaf to the voice of the electorate.

"There are clearly big challenges ahead for the country, concerns that we have to address, big arguments to be won about the future direction of policy in this country. But these are arguments I am prepared to win."

Iraq shadow

Once the new treaty was agreed, EU leaders together had to get back to focusing on cooperating on economic prosperity and security rather than "arcane" constitutional details.

One of the most important moves in Europe, which would also prove popular, would be to cut regulations coming out of Brussels, he said.

The Iraq war has been cited as a reason for the slump in support for Labour at the polls and Mr Blair acknowledged the conflict had dominated the agenda for many months.

  Councillors Councils  
PARTY +/- TOT +/- TOT  
CON
283
1714
13
51
LAB
-479
2250
-8
39
LD
137
1283
-2
9
PC
-28
172
-2
1
OTH
13
625
-1
66

"I understand the strength of feelings it has aroused," he said, arguing that leadership sometimes meant taking unpopular decisions.

He said he continued to believe terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and rogue states were the key security threats facing the world.

"The judgement will increasingly be seen to be to be right as time goes on," Mr Blair predicted.

'Not listening'?

The prime minister has told Labour MPs to "hold their nerve" and to focus party efforts on domestic issues like public services.

On Tuesday, he pointed to "real progress" in improving the NHS and schools.

"We want to take all of this further. Now is not the time for a change in direction ... but a change in gear," he continued, promising more details of reform plans over coming months.

But those comments prompted Matthew Taylor, Lib Dem parliamentary party chairman, to warn: "The electorate are fed up with a Labour government that won't listen.

"So long as Tony Blair makes it clear that he will learn no lessons from Labour's election defeats, Liberal Democrats will continue to win in Labour heartlands."

Election platform

Labour's vote fell 6% to 23% in the European polls, their worst share of the vote since before World War I.

The Tories got more votes - 27% - but that is still their lowest share of any nationwide election since 1832.

Mr Howard told a meeting of Tory MPs at the House of Commons the Euro elections provided a platform for a Conservative general election victory.

He said there would be no change of policy on Europe following the UKIP successes.

Howard's Europe message

Liam Fox, the party's co-chairman, said Mr Howard would be in Downing Street if the results were repeated at a general election.

Mr Howard told the BBC it was "not altogether surprising" so many Tories had defected to UKIP.

"Like us, they don't want the prime minister to sign up to the constitution this week and he certainly has no mandate whatever to sign up to that constitution," he said.

The Liberal Democrats saw their vote rise 2% to 15% and stressed they were the only big party to increase their vote despite being pushed into fourth place by UKIP.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Mark Mardell
"Any nerves on Blair's part are kept strictly under the table"



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Blair conference: Point by point
15 Jun 04  |  Politics



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