Sat, Jun 12, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Blair gets drubbing from war-weary Britons

REUTERS , LONDON

A Chelsea pensioner, right, leaves after casting his vote at a polling station in west London, yesterday.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Britons angry over Iraq have given Prime Minister Tony Blair a drubbing in local elections, relegating his ruling Labour Party to an unprecedented third place.

"It's a bad night for us, but it's not meltdown," Blair's Home Secretary David Blunkett said yesterday. "On Iraq, we are very clear about that -- it has damaged us."

Thursday's local council poll outcome -- likely to be echoed in European Parliament results tomorrow -- will inevitably renew speculation about Blair's leadership.

But analysts still expect him to take Labour to a third general election victory next year despite his humiliation at the polls, the biggest test of public feeling both since the Iraq war and since Blair won a second term in 2001.

With nearly half the results counted by early Friday -- 82 of 166 councils up for grabs -- Labour had lost a net 211 seats, closing in on the overall loss of 400 or more which analysts had projected as a benchmark of seriousness for Blair.

The BBC projected Labour's vote share at just 26 percent, way behind the Conservatives on 38 percent, and also behind Britain's third party, the Liberal Democrats, on 30 percent.

"What you have got is a government that is clearly unpopular but a main opposition party that is not capitalizing," pollster Peter Kellner said, adding that the Conservatives needed 40 percent to be on course for victory next year.

"Blair will not be as shiningly popular as he was in 1997 but I think people will prefer to trust him again."

The Conservatives were in upbeat mood.

"It has been Labour's worst electoral performance in living memory and it is the first time that a government has been pushed into third place in mid-term elections," crowed party chairman Liam Fox.

The message of disillusionment will not be lost on Blair and will undoubtedly heighten calls from for him to give way to Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown.

Thursday's turnout was around 40 percent.

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