Nightmare looms on Brussels Street

NEXT week's European elections are rapidly turning into a nightmare for Michael Howard and Tony Blair – and the Liberal Democrats must also be nervous at the final outcome.

NEXT week's European elections are rapidly turning into a nightmare for Michael Howard and Tony Blair - and the Liberal Democrats must also be nervous at the final outcome.

Labour's support is collapsing as those voters disillusioned by the Iraq war and angered at spiralling fuel prices signal their intention to abstain or switch to the Greens, Respect, the UK Independence Party or the far-right British National Party.

Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats should be providing a home for Labour's disenchanted supporters, but neither is picking up switchers in any significant numbers.

Indeed the Tories have their own problems with the UK Independence Party and there is growing evidence that voters next Thursday are preparing to split their tickets in unprecedented numbers - that is vote one way in the council elections and a different party for Europe.

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Drive anywhere across East Anglia and you'll be hard put to find election posters for any party other than UKIP. Whether it's Nayland or Southwold, Ipswich or Tendring, West Suffolk or North Norfolk, the purple and gold UKIP slogans "Say No to Europe" are everywhere.

UKIP's mushrooming support cannot just be coming from the Conservatives.

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One senior Tory, campaigning this week in the west of the region, found large numbers of Labour and Lib Dem voters who were preparing to jump on the UKIP bandwagon. The same Conservative Party official also reported that the BNP was taking Labour votes in Luton and Hertfordshire.

Labour admits it is deeply worried at support for the BNP in south Essex while in the Braintree-Witham area of mid Essex, Tory canvassers have found a "significant" number of electors preparing to vote for either UKIP or the BNP.

The adoption of ex-Labour MP and former chatshow host Robert Kilroy-Silk as an European Parliament candidate in the East Midlands has given UKIP an unexpectedly strong campaign springboard across the whole of the country.

Strategists from the three main parties who watched Kilroy-Silk's performance in Wednesday night's party election broadcast must have covered their faces in horror at how outstandingly professional it was and how plausible it sounded.

With a second celebrity supporter in the form of Dynasty actress Joan Collins, the party Mr Howard dismisses as "political gadflies and cranks" are poised to do real damage to the Conservatives.

Six months ago, the Tories were cruising to a major victory in these elections. Not any more. Here in the East, there is the added complication of the impact of anti-sleaze campaigner Martin Bell, who is standing as an Independent.

There is no comfort for Labour in UKIP's advance and there's been no sign of the Prime Minister during this campaign. Clearly desperate to distance himself from a disaster in the making, Mr Blair is preparing to put the best possible gloss on an anti-EU backlash.

Cars decked in the flag of St George to show support for the England soccer team are giving a jingoistic lift to UKIP, the BNP and the fledging English Democrats.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw - the architect of the closed lists system of proportional representation being used in the European elections - yesterday taunted the Tories. He said their European policy was "rapidly unravelling" in the face of a surge of support for the UKIP.

Rejecting UKIP's calls for the UK to quit the EU, he said: "Let's be clear: withdrawal from the European Union would be an unmitigated disaster for Britain. It would threaten British jobs, British businesses and British influence in the world. It would put our future prosperity and security at risk."

However, Mr Straw said UKIP's "clear and consistent" position was better than the Tories "unconvincing, unsustainable and absurd" stance.

Adding to the Prime Minister's problems is the spiralling price of petrol, the prospect of fuel protests - the first of which is due to block the Dartford crossings on the M25 the day before polling - and a London underground strike on election day.

A sign of Tory desperation is Michael Howard's naked opportunism in backing "lawful and peaceful" petrol protests. But Europe is never away - and farmers angered by EU agriculture policy and truckers who say Britain's toll-free roads and high fuel duty give continental rivals an unfair advantage will be key players in any blockades.

As for Charles Kennedy, a poor showing on June 10 will raise fresh doubts over his leadership.

The local and European polls are effectively a warm-up for the general election expected in less than a year.

I expect the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to do well in the council elections - but the European poll is a completely different matter. There are seven seats at stake in this region for the Brussels parliament, and nobody can be confident of forecasting the final outcome.


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