After seven long years in political purgatory, Britain's Conservative Party has finally found a way to win a nationwide election -- clear and unmitigated "Euro-bashing."
In final results from European Parliament elections released today, the Tories led all British parties. They took 36 percent of the vote -- twice what they got in the last European election, five years ago -- and left Prime Minister Tony Blair's generally dominant Labor Party far behind, at 28 percent.
Moreover, the Conservatives whipped Labor at a time when the economy is robust and Blair is enormously popular because of his leadership during the Kosovo conflict. The Tories did it, virtually all analysts agreed, because they waged a campaign that adroitly targeted the British public's clear distaste for the European single currency, the euro.
In policy terms, the Labor and Conservative parties are not far apart on the question of Britain's joining the single-currency system. Blair and his party say Britain should wait and see about the euro -- and make no decision for two or three years. Conservative leader William Hague says Britain should wait and see about the euro -- but he wants to put off a decision for six or seven years.
In this spring's election campaign, though, the Tories neatly magnified that relatively small difference. Over and over again, Hague criticized the euro. He never stopped repeating the party slogan on what Britain's relationship to the continent should be -- "In Europe, but not run by Europe" -- and never stopped promising to "save the pound." Blair basically ignored these tactics, focusing his attention on Kosovo and offering only pallid rebuttals.
Another asset for Hague was that his party, which is split between "Europhiles" and "Euroskeptics," managed for once to quell its internal squabbles. Hague threatened to expel any party member who endorsed British entry into the single-currency system, and the pro-euro Tories obediently kept quiet. That made the Conservatives the main anti-Europe party, a position that paid off when the votes were cast.
Pundits warned that no broad generalizations should be made from the vote, partly because turnout was a meager 23 percent -- shockingly low by British standards -- and partly because the switch to a new form of proportional voting in this election made it virtually certain that Labor would lose some of its seats in the European Parliament, the legislative arm of the 15-nation European Union.
Still, the anti-Europe mood of those who did vote was patent. The big gainers, compared to the last European Parliament election, were the strongest anti-euro parties -- the Conservatives, the Greens and the U.K. Independence Party, which won three seats in the Parliament on a platform demanding British withdrawal from the European Union.
Labor's share of both the vote and seats in the Parliament declined. The most pro-Europe of Britain's major parties, the Liberal Democrats, saw their share of the vote drop from 17 percent five years ago to 13 percent this year, but because of the proportional voting, their number of seats increased from two to 10.
Whatever else it might mean, the result saved Hague's job. The 37-year-old Conservative leader has struggled in vain for the past two years to beat Blair in some contest. Now he has done it.