Sun, Jun 13, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Battered Blair goes home

UNHAPPY RETURNS The British prime minster got back from the US to find that his party had suffered a thrashing at the polls, but he seems unlikely to change Iraq policy

REUTERS , LONDON

A humbled Tony Blair returned to Britain yesterday to answer critics in his own party after voter backlash against his support for war in Iraq brought an unprecedented trouncing in local elections.

Blair's aides tried to put the best possible spin on the election defeat while the prime minister attended the funeral of former US president Ronald Reagan in Washington.

But more than 460 Labour officials were voted out of local government, and Blair will have to convince party members with seats in national parliament that they will not suffer the same fate in a general election likely next year.

"I'd like to say I'm sorry to the [local] councilors who've lost their seats," Blair told reporters in Washington before heading home.

"I think Iraq has been a shadow over our support," he said.

He said he was still determined to stay on in Iraq, and expected Iraq would become less of a liability as news improved with a UN-endorsed plan to restore sovereignty.

Blair supported the US drive to invade Iraq despite strong opposition within his own party.

Ruling parties in Britain often do poorly in local elections only to bounce back and win in national polls.

But for the first time Blair's Labour Party did not even manage to come second. Its 26 percent left it behind both the main opposition Conservatives and the strongly anti-war Liberal Democrats, traditionally the smaller third party.

Labour's majority in parliament under Blair has been so big he would still control the chamber even if scores of his party colleagues were to lose their seats in next year's election.

Party rules make it difficult to remove him as leader, but as more Labour lawmakers fear for their own jobs, there have been growing calls for a new party leader -- and hence prime minister -- to fight the election.

Blair's ambitious Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown has been waiting in the wings.

Most Labour figures, while acknowledging a need to learn from what Blair's deputy John Prescott called a "kicking," fell well shy of calling for Blair's scalp.

But former foreign secretary Robin Cook, who quit the cabinet in protest of plans for war, said voters who deserted Labour over Iraq would stay away as long as Blair led it.

Clare Short, another outspoken Labour rebel, said voters were punishing Blair because his party couldn't.

"What we did in Iraq has brought disgrace and dishonor on Britain around the world. As Tony Blair won't change the policy, the only way to make a correction is for him to step aside from the leadership," she said.

The one bright spot for Labour in this week's election was the reelection of its popular candidate Ken Livingstone as London's mayor, announced late on Friday.

But even that was a dubious endorsement for Blair, since the maverick Livingstone led massive street protests against the Iraq war.

Blair faces more expected bad news today when delayed results for Thursday's vote for the European Parliament are released.

Opinion polls suggest fringe parties opposed to deeper integration with the EU will do well. That may hurt the opposition Conservatives more than Blair in the short term, but it bodes ill for him in the year ahead.

The prime minister has pledged to sign a new constitution for the EU, and then lobby voters to support it in a referendum, even though most Britons disapprove of the idea.

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