British Labor Party wins landslide Major concedes; Conservatives' reign of 18 years ends; Blair is new prime minister; An overwhelming victory; Defeat was biggest in modern times


LONDON -- Tony Blair's Labor Party stormed to power yesterday with a historic landslide that shattered the Conservatives' 18-year political rule in Britain.

Blair, who turns 44 in five days, succeeds John Major to become Britain's youngest prime minister since 1812. Labor scored its greatest victory ever, seizing a commanding parliamentary majority in the 659-member House of Commons.

With 625 races decided, Labor had 416 seats. The Conservatives, who came to power led by Margaret Thatcher in 1979, had 158 seats; the Liberal Democrats had 40 and other parties collected 11 seats.

The outcome dwarfed Labor's 1945 landslide that drove Winston Churchill from power. It was the Conservatives' worst defeat in ,, modern times.

"Tonight, we have been comprehensively defeated," Major acknowledged shortly after 3: 30 a.m.

The scale of the triumph -- Labor's first since 1974 -- ensures that Blair can retain power for a full five years.

"I feel this evening a deep sense of honor, a deep sense of responsibility and a deep sense of humility," Blair told his supporters after regaining his parliamentary seat in Sedgefield, in the north of England.

"It is not a vote for outdated dogma or ideology of any kind," he said, referring to the old socialist obsessions he compelled his party to discard. "It is a vote for an end to division, an end to looking backwards.

"It is with a real sense of pride that we have created a Labor Party today capable of offering that unity of purpose, that vision of renewal that the country needs."

In a choked voice, Blair spoke of his mother, Hazel, who died in 1975, and his father, Leo, a former Conservative Party candidate whose political and legal career was ended by a stroke that left him unable to speak for three years.

"I would never have done what I've done without him," Blair said, looking at his father. "For him, like me, all that could have made this moment complete was for my mother to be here as well."

After winning his seat in Huntingdon, the 54-year-old Major offered his congratulations in a phone call to Blair, adding "he inherits a country in extremely good economic shape. I wish him every success in sustaining that.

"We are a great and historic party," Major said. "We have had great victories in our time. We have had defeats in our time. We accept them both with a certain dignity and certain grace."

Other Tories, however, were bitter and shell-shocked.

"We're all Thatcher's children now," said Sir Marcus Fox, a senior Tory who lost his seat in Parliament to a 24-year-old. "Her policies have been hijacked, and people are unable to see that and understand what it means."

Under clear skies and amid heavy security to ward off potential Irish Republican Army terror threats, millions of Britons went to the polls. They cast their ballots in town halls, churches, schools, a pub, an ancient abbey, even the back seat of a car.

And they redrew the country's electoral map. The Tory heartland, Middle England, was seized by Labor. Tory Cabinet ministers lost their seats one by one. Among the prominent losers were Defense Secretary Michael Portillo and Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind.

Blair stands at the summit of British politics, just 14 years after joining Parliament.

Born in Scotland, raised in England and educated at prestigious schools, including Oxford, Blair presents a new modern face for Labor -- and Britain.

His wife, Cherie Booth, is a top attorney who plans to continue her practice. The couple has three school-age children, who will take over the living quarters at 10 Downing St.

A barrister by trade, Blair thrives in the hurly-burly of British politics, which is filled with back-room dealing.

When he arrived in Parliament in 1983, Labor was a shattered party shackled with a left-wing manifesto that was dubbed the longest suicide note in political history.

Blair threw his lot in with the modernizers who sought to move Labor away from its socialist roots and its bosses in the trade unions. The fight to transform the party would last more than a decade, as Labor absorbed two more defeats at the hands of the Tories.

Blair soared to prominence in February 1993 in the wake of the murder of 2-year-old Jamie Bulger, who was beaten to death by two Liverpool youngsters. Security cameras captured the two boys leading the toddler to his death.

Blair told a stunned nation: "The news bulletins of the last week have been like hammer blows struck against the sleeping conscience of the country, urging us to take up and look unflinchingly at what we see."

For a Labor politician, these were words of outrage on an uncommon topic. Blair fostered an image as a law-and-order advocate. And he later coined the phrase, "tough on crime and the causes of crime."

Blair became Labor leader in July 1994 after the sudden death of one of his political patrons, John Smith.

As leader, Blair ruthlessly remade the party, tagging it new Labor, while cleaning out the old guard. He rewrote Clause IV, the party's clarion call to nationalize the economy. He vowed to make Labor a low-tax, low-inflation, pro-business movement.

Critics have derided New Labor as Tory Lite, a description that infuriates Blair.

"This idea that we have secured growing support on the basis of ditching our principles is rubbish," he said. "What we concentrate on is education, skills, rather than nationalization, union power and tax-and-spend policies."

Blair ran a flawless if cautious campaign, filled with photo opportunities and speeches that were long on passion and short on substance. Still, he exerted military-like control over his party, quashing any sign of dissent to present a united front to the voters.

He also side-stepped a debate with Major.

For Major, the high school dropout from London's slums who became prime minister in 1990 after the Tory leadership defeat of Margaret Thatcher, and won re-election in 1992, the campaign was a frustrating final act of his career. He never landed a glove on Blair. And his party was perilously divided over the issue of Britain entering a single European currency by 1999.

Still, Major gamely battled on through the six-week campaign, one of the longest this century. He tried to focus attention on Tory successes, telling voters his party rid the country of inflation and triggered a booming economy.

But the Tories were also burdened by petty political scandals. And the government's handling of the "mad cow disease" crisis outraged the public.

"We've radically reformed the education and health services, invested more in the arts, heritage and sport in human history," Major said. "The economy is doing better and the prospects are better."

But the voters yearned for a change.

Now, it's the Tories who will have to perform a make over. The battle for the party leadership will soon begin, with Euroskeptics facing off against the pro-Europeans.

But for the first time in 18 years, the Tory divisions will be strictly internal.

Pub Date: 5/02/97

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