Sat, Jul 17, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Blair suffers new voting setback

UNEASE Speculation ran rampant about the prime minister's standing within his own party as Labour lost one seat and held on to another by the skin of its teeth

AP , LONDON

Prime Minister Tony Blair suffered a fresh electoral setback yesterday, when his governing Labour Party lost one parliamentary seat to an anti-war party and narrowly avoided defeat in another constituency.

The Liberal Democrats, who strongly opposed the war in Iraq, came first with 10,274 votes in Leicester, a city in central England with a large Muslim population.

Labour came second with 8,620 votes and the Conservative Party was third with 5,796.

The result is a further blow for Blair, whose popularity has slumped since the Iraq war.

Labour fared terribly in local council and European Parliament elections last month, and some in the party question whether Blair, once their most prized electoral asset, has become a liability.

Labour narrowly held onto another parliamentary seat, in Birmingham, with 7,451 votes. The Liberal Democrats came second on 6,991 votes and the Conservatives came third with 3,543.

Government ministers tried to put a brave face on the result.

"What's astonishing is that seven years into a government, Labour has won one election and come a close second in another, " said Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt.

Hewitt insisted Blair's leadership "is absolutely secure.

"I am in no doubt that he will lead us into the election and will be winning an historic third term," she said.

The two by-elections, triggered by the death of one Labour lawmaker and the resignation of another, followed the publication on Wednesday of a report exposing widespread British intelligence failures on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

The inquiry, led by Lord Butler, concluded that British intelligence was flawed, but said the government had not deliberately deceived anyone as it built a case for toppling former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

It was the fourth such inquiry to clear the government of hyping the Iraqi threat. Blair claimed vindication, insisting he acted in good faith.

Political opponents, however, say Blair's confident assertions before the war that Iraq had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction were misleading, when intelligence was patchy at best.

The new Liberal Democrat lawmaker for the Leicester South constituency, Parmjit Singh Gill, who overturned a large Labour majority of 13,243 votes, said the electorate had given their verdict on the war.

"The claims about weapons of mass destruction were exaggerated," he said, in his victory speech.

"The justification which Tony Blair gave for backing [US President] George W. Bush was wrong. Their message is that the prime minister has abused and lost their trust," Gill said.

Blair's Health Minister, John Reid, conceded that some voters were unhappy about the war.

"I have not denied there is an element of protest in the results, nor have I denied that we have got to listen to what has been said. All I have said is that it is not entirely about Iraq," he told the British Broadcasting Corp.

The Liberal Democrats fought both seats on a strong anti-war ticket, reaching out to large Muslim populations. Leicester South has 20,000 Muslims, representing 18 percent of the population. The city is expected within a decade to be the first British city with a nonwhite majority. Birmingham's Hodge Hill constituency has some 8,500 Muslims, or 14 percent of the population.

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