British Prime Minister David Cameron said he could still win general elections in the U.K. next year after his Conservative Party came in third in Sunday’s European Parliament vote, but achieving victory would be tough going, and the Conservatives would have to convince voters their economic plan was working.
The Conservatives won 19 of the 73 seats the U.K. holds in the 751-seat European Parliament, finishing behind the small, euroskeptic U.K. Independence Party, led by Nigel Farage, which won 24 seats, and the center-left Labour Party, which won 20 seats. The biggest losers were Mr. Cameron’s coalition partner, the pro-European Liberal Democrats, which won only one seat, dropping 10 seats from its previous holding.
EU elections aren’t always a reliable guide to how voters will behave in a national election. Still, Sunday’s vote sends a strong message of discontent to the Tories, barely a year ahead of a general election scheduled for May 2015.
Between now and then, Mr. Cameron must contend with another wild card in the form of a September referendum for Scottish independence. The prime minister acknowledged the raised degree of difficulty heading into next year’s vote.
“I’m not saying it’s easy to win the next election, it is going to be a really tough struggle, we have got to convince people that the plan is working, we should stick with it….It is possible to win from here, we have just got to have a real focus on what really matters, which is completing our economic plan and turning the country around,” he told the BBC.
Mr. Cameron’s coalition government has relied on a combination of budget cutting and loose monetary policy to bring the U.K. economy out of recession. Yet while unemployment has sunk to a five-year low and the economy is growing at a brisk pace again, consumer prices have risen faster than wages and many Britons have yet to feel the benefits of the recovery.
The gains by UKIP raise the most unexpected challenge to Mr. Cameron’s and Labour’s strategy for 2015. UKIP jumped to the top of some pre-election opinion polls by waging a campaign warning that immigrants wanted to take British jobs and claiming that the U.K. was run by the EU. Its success wasn’t damped by Mr. Cameron’s pledge, if he wins a second term, to renegotiate the U.K.’s relationship with the EU and then hold a national referendum on Britain’s redefined membership of the bloc by the end of 2017.
Mr. Cameron said the clear message from the European elections was that people were deeply disillusioned with the EU and wanted change. Britons wanted a government plan that would target EU-related problems such as immigration, as well as the lingering legacy of the U.K.’s painful economic slump, Mr. Cameron said.
UKIP was buoyed by a potent mix of anti-establishment rhetoric and opposition to immigration and EU membership. Mr. Farage repeatedly denied UKIP was racist, most recently after saying people would be right to be concerned if a group of Romanians moved in next door.
A string of offensive comments by members of the party didn’t dent its appeal. In a victory speech in central London, a jubilant Mr. Farage said Sunday’s result was an “earthquake in British politics” and showed that UKIP was a nationwide party asking profound questions of all mainstream parties.
“Our game is to get this right, our game is to find the right candidates, our game is to target our resources on getting a good number of seats in Westminster next year,” he said.