May 2, 1997 in Nation/World

Britain’s Labor Party Routs Conservatives 43-Year-Old Tony Blair To Take Over As Prime Minister

Ray Moseley Chicago Tribune
 

Tony Blair led the Labor Party to a landslide victory in Britain’s national election Thursday, handing the long-dominant Conservative Party the worst drubbing it has suffered since the mid-19th century.

Incomplete returns show Labor will have a majority of about 187 seats in the 659-member Parliament, the largest in its history. The British Broadcasting Corp. estimated Labor won 51.5 percent of the vote, Conservatives 26 percent, Liberal Democrats 14.5 percent and others 8 percent.

The crushing defeat for Prime Minister John Major’s Conservatives leaves the party that Margaret Thatcher led to glory in the 1980s in wreckage. Party leaders clearly were stunned at the scale of the defeat after 18 consecutive years in power and with the economy prospering.

The Conservatives lost seats not only to Labor but also to the Liberal Democrats, who had only 26 seats in the outgoing Parliament and are expected to win about 40. It appeared to be the Tories’ worst showing since 1832.

They virtually were wiped out in Scotland and Wales and were reduced to a minority in England - a stunning revision of the British political map.

The civil war in the Conservative Party over Europe that contributed heavily to its electoral disaster is expected to intensify now, and the Conservatives may not be able to mount effective opposition to Blair for many months.

Major, 54, who held power for 6-1/2 years, widely is expected to resign the party leadership before long.

One of the most spectacular results was the defeat of Defense Secretary Michael Portillo, who had been one of the leading contenders to succeed Major someday.

Blair, who will be 44 on Monday, will be the youngest prime minister in 185 years. The election result is a personal triumph for the Scottish-born Blair, who abandoned Labor’s traditional socialism, curbed union dominance of the party, won significant backing from business and captured the hearts of Middle England that long had belonged to the Conservatives.

Blair achieved all this in just 2-1/2 years after he took over Labor’s leadership following the death of John Smith.

Blair’s successful campaign strategy was modeled on the example of his political soulmate, President Clinton, particularly in his use of focus groups to define the principal issues and in his moves to become a centrist candidate, adopting many traditional Conservative policies.

Blair withheld an immediate claim of victory. But he said early today that if indications of a Labor landslide hold up, he knows what it means.

“It is a vote for the future,” he said. “It is not a vote for outdated dogma or ideology of any kind. It is a vote for an end to divisions.”

The deep divisions in the Conservative Party over policy toward Europe may have been the most important factor in determining the election outcome, leading voters to doubt its ability to provide effective leadership.

Those doubts were deepened by the performance of Major, who has been unable for several years to hold his party together and failed to display the whip-cracking qualities of Thatcher.

Another factor that may have contributed importantly to the result was a series of sexual and financial scandals in the Conservative Party and government that led Labor to brand its opponents as the party of sleaze.

Other factors were voter dissatisfaction over Conservative management of the education system, the National Health Service and the fight against crime.

Major pinned his hopes on the Conservative economic performance, boasting that his government has made Britain one of the most prosperous nations in Europe, with steady growth accompanied by low inflation and low interest rates.

But economic growth was not spread evenly across the country, and the gap between rich and poor widened during the 18 years of Conservative rule.

Until Thursday, Labor’s best showing in an election was in 1945, when it won a majority of 147 seats in ousting Winston Churchill as prime minister. While polls in this election generally showed the Conservatives would win about 35 percent of the vote, the party fared worse, gaining only about 31 percent. The last time the Conservatives polled less than 35 percent of the vote was in 1859.

In Scotland, the Conservatives were wiped out, losing all 11 of their seats. Among those defeated in Scotland were three ministers, including Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind.

Recriminations within the party started immediately. One leading “Euroskeptic” blamed the Conservative defeat on Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke, who is resolutely pro-European and refused to countenance the party coming out against adopting the European single currency. Clarke brushed off the charge.

Aside from the Conservatives, another notable loser in the election was billionaire James Goldsmith, who formed the Referendum Party and spent an estimated $30 million of his own fortune to campaign for British withdrawal from the European Union.

One notable aspect of the election was that Labor ran a large number of women candidates, and many were elected. It appears the new Parliament will have at least 100 women members, the highest number in history.

Thousands of armed police were stationed around polling places in anticipation that the Irish Republican Army might try to disrupt the voting with the kind of bomb threats it made during the campaign, but no threats materialized.

Major will resign his office this morning when he is driven to Buckingham Palace to meet with Queen Elizabeth II. About half an hour later, Blair will go to the palace and the queen will ask him to form a government.

He will announce his first Cabinet appointments this afternoon and is expected to complete his Cabinet selection on Saturday and fill junior ministerial posts on Sunday and Monday.


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