We had excellent results," British Conservative leader Michael Howard said at a postelection rally last week, and he had reason to declare victory: his Tories picked up 38% of the total vote in last week's local elections across England and Wales, according to BBC post-election projections. With the perennial also-ran Liberal Democrats grabbing 29% of the vote, it was Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party that came in third, with just 26% the first time a British ruling party had fared so poorly. Blair's support for the Iraq war made him so radioactive that he barely campaigned, and Home Secretary David Blunkett declared himself "mortified" by the battering Labour took. But the Tories' happy days looked likely to be here and gone by Sunday, when the European Parliament results were due. British voters remain so deeply divided about what place they want for their country within the European Union that they were expected to hand more than 10% of the parliamentary vote to an anti-E.U. splinter group called the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP). And the UKIP was likely to pull votes from the famously (but more moderately) Euro-skeptical Tories who stood to lose as many as a third of their M.E.P. seats, bringing Howard's celebration to a quick end.
UKIP's brand of fire-breathing Euro- hatred they want Britain out of the E.U., period was projected to show up in results from other countries too, including Belgium, Sweden and Poland, where the Samoobrona Party, which wants to renegotiate Poland's terms of entry into the E.U., was expected to take as many as 13 seats. According to one poll conducted for the European Parliament, Euro-skeptic M.E.P.s will constitute about a tenth of its membership, and possibly hold the balance of power on some issues. As E.U. leaders assemble in Brussels this week in hopes of finally agreeing on a long-delayed constitution that is anathema to these newly invigorated skeptics, this election was one more crack in the plaster of the European project.
Despite its poor showing, Labour avoided a total meltdown, allowing Blair to once again scrape through with his political skin more or less intact. The newspapers have left him for dead countless times, and last week was no different. His political capital is running very low, and backbenchers made the usual calls for him to go, but Blair fresh from playing statesman at the G-8 meeting in Georgia was having none of it. "It's a question of holding our nerve and seeing it through," he said. Which may have been one way of asking: Who's going to make me go?
Michael Howard is trying. The immediate question for him is how to use these elections as a launchpad for returning the once-mighty Tories to government. There's no doubt that the party's good local election results owe much to his efforts. After winning the leadership last November, he re-energized party workers, quelled squabbling in the shadow cabinet, and established a reputation for brisk competence that has made him a credible contender for Prime Minister especially since 61% of voters in a recent MORI survey disapproved of Blair's job performance.
Howard's appeal was evident early this month on a campaign stop in Eastbourne, on England's south coast, when he propelled himself out of a minivan to press the flesh. Though once famously skewered by another Tory minister for having "something of the night" about him an allegedly dark and devious side Howard, 62, appeared invigorated by sunny retail politics, chatting with local councillors and police, and grabbing passersby to ask, "Are you going to vote Conservative?" In this crowd, mostly elderly and white, the answer was usually yes.