LONDON — The ruling Conservative Party reeled Friday after being shut out in Scotland's local elections--a disastrous loss that threatens the party leadership of Prime Minister John Major.
In voting Thursday, the Conservatives failed to win control of any of 29 new city councils and took only 79 of 1,100 available council seats.
The opposition Labor Party, by contrast, took 20 councils, while Scottish nationalists and independents split the rest.
Major blamed the results, released Friday, on Tory disunity.
"People in this country expect Conservatives to be united," he said. "That is what they have generally grown up within the Conservative Party, and when it does not happen I think people are naturally concerned about it. I think they have sent a fairly clear message on this occasion."
The Tories' overwhelming defeat caused alarm among Conservative members of Parliament and brought a stern warning from Cabinet members that party splits could bring dire results in local elections in England and Wales early next month.
If those elections go heavily against the Conservatives, as appears likely, political commentators say a movement to replace Major as leader could swell--as was the case with Margaret Thatcher in 1990.
The Tories have been badly split over the European issue: Major and most of the Cabinet favor maintaining strong ties to the European Union; so-called Euroskeptics tend to oppose any measures that link Britain to the EU.
Several Conservative MPs have rebelled against Major's stand on Europe and are no longer considered loyal party members. Their anti-government statements are given wide play in the media.
Of the coming local elections, Major declared Friday: "I hope people will contest them on the record of the local authority. There is a very substantial price to be paid in not voting Conservative. We will fight these elections very hard."
Labor spokesman George Robertson predicted that the momentum building behind his party would carry it to victory at the next general election, due in mid-1997. "This is a quite remarkable result by any standards," he said. "People want to send a signal to Downing Street that we are fed up with what they are doing and we want them to go."
"The Tories are finished in Scotland," Scottish National Party member Mike Russell said, "and we are glad they are finished."
And Liberal Democrat Jim Wallace, whose party ran well Thursday, said, "The Tories claim they fought this on local issues, and they have been humiliated. Heaven help them when they fight on national issues."