British Conservatives suffer large-scale defeat

May 07, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- British voters have battered the governing Conservative Party into its worst defeat in history and left Prime Minister John Major bloodied and struggling for survival.

The Conservatives lost more than 400 seats in Thursday's local council elections. Winning only 27 percent of the vote, the party finished third in England and Wales behind Labor and the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Major's "authority is as diminished as that of any prime minister in living memory," said Philip Stephens, the political editor of the Financial Times.

The government tried to limit the council election to local issues, but the voters turned it into a mid-term protest vote. They vented their displeasure with the perceived incompetence of the government, its failure to keep its promise on taxes, the slow recovery from the recession.

Mr. Major now has the unenviable job of rallying his party for European Parliament elections in a month. British commentators compared his task to Custer's at the Little Big Horn.

No issue splits the Conservatives more deeply than Britain's position in the European Union.

Two of Mr. Major's potential replacements fall on opposite sides of the Euro-gap: Michael Portillo, the Treasury chief secretary, is an outspoken Euro-skeptic. Michael Heseltine, the president of the Board of Trade, favors the European Union.

Partisans of both were lining up votes among Conservative members of Parliament even before Thursday's debacle. If the Conservatives do as badly in the European elections, no one will be taking bets on Mr. Major's finishing out the year as prime minister.

The Labor Party held on to most of the council seats it won in its extraordinary 1990 showing, stalling Conservative counterattacks virtually everywhere. The party won about 2,700 seats, at least 800 more than the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats combined. About 5,100 seats were contested in 198 councils.

"Labor now holds more council seats than at any time in our history," said Labor Party leader John Smith.

The Liberal Democrats recorded their best results ever with an increase of nearly 390 seats after virtual collapse in 1990. With 28 percent of the vote, the moderate party moved into second place and was the day's big winner.

The Conservative defeat was so wide and so deep it was difficult to pinpoint their worst result. They lost to Labor in the outer London borough of Croydon, which had been governed by Conservatives since it was formed nearly 120 years ago.

In Scotland, admittedly a Labor stronghold, the Conservatives were dumped into fourth place by the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party, which came in second.

The Conservatives had targeted the Labor-held council in Birmingham, England's second-largest city, and Mr. Major had campaigned hard there. Labor not only retained control, but the Conservatives lost two of the six seats they held.

A maverick Conservative member of Parliament, John Carlisle, immediately challenged Mr. Major's leadership and offered himself as replacement.

Outside his residence at No. 10 Downing Street, an edgy but combative Mr. Major dismissed Mr. Carlisle's challenge. "If anybody chooses to engage in that fight," he says, "they will find me there, standing there waiting for them."

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