British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labour Party was headed toward its worst local election defeat in four decades yesterday, bleeding council seats from traditional strongholds and fueling doubts about Brown’s ability to lead his party to victory in a general election.
The Conservative Party made strong gains across the nation in Thursday’s balloting, partial results show. Crucially, the Tories looked set to wrest control of London’s coveted mayor position, with indications that eccentric former magazine editor Boris Johnson stood a good chance of defeating Mayor Ken Livingstone.
The crushing defeat is certain to embolden a growing chorus of critics within Labour who argue that the famously sullen Brown should be pushed out in favor of a more dynamic figure better equipped to match the charisma of the Tories’ surging and youthful leader, David Cameron.
The Conservatives were jubilant yesterday as election results rolled in.
“The ship of state is heading towards the rocks,” crowed Tory spokesman Ed Pickles, predicting the result would encourage Brown to put off a national vote until the latest possible date in 2010.
For Brown, the most damaging defeat is the likely loss of London, which has been in Labour hands for nearly a decade. There was little he could do to put a positive spin on the losses.
“It’s clear to me that this has been a disappointing night, indeed a bad night for Labour,” Brown told reporters.
The Conservatives have been buoyed by the electoral appeal of the 41-year-old Cameron. He said Tory advances amounted to more than just a protest vote.
“I think these results are not just a vote against Gordon Brown and his government,” Cameron said yesterday. “I think they are a vote of positive confidence in the Conservative Party.”
The BBC projected the Conservatives would take 44 percent of the vote in England and Wales, putting it 20 points ahead of Labour. Brown’s party was running neck-and-neck with the Liberal Democrats, the country’s third-largest party.
Partial results yesterday from 99 local councils showed the Conservatives gaining 144 seats with Labour losing 145. The Liberal Democrats were projected to gain 10.
Brown blamed the setback on economic difficulties that include sagging house prices and the fallout from the government’s decision to nationalize mortgage lender Northern Rock, another victim of the credit crunch.
Results of the closely fought London mayor’s race were expected to be announced late yesterday. Defeat for Livingstone, the leftwing mayor since 2000, would further erode Labour’s grip on power after it lost control of Scotland’s regional government last year.
Under Britain’s four-year municipal voting cycle, local council seats up for grabs in Thursday’s vote were last fought for in 2004, when voters handed Blair a stinging defeat, using the ballots to protest over the unpopular Iraq war.