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Blair suffers stinging election setback

/ Source: Financial Times

Tony Blair, the British prime minister, suffered a sensational defeat in the Brent East by-election on Thursday night, as voters punished the government for the Iraq war and the state of public services with a 29 percentage point swing to the Liberal Democrats.

Labour's loss of a supposedly safe seat in one of its inner-city heartlands will increase the pressure on the prime minister to change the party’s direction. The party gained only 33.8 percent of the vote in the north-west London constituency, compared to 63.2 percent in the 2001 general election.

Ministers admitted the defeat marked a low point in New Labour’s fortunes, with public confidence in the government at its lowest since 1997. But they characterised the surge in support for the Lib-Dems as simply a by-election blip. The “bad result” was a “mid-term protest vote,” Nick Raynsford, the local government minister, said.

The election of 29-year-old Lib-Dem candidate Sarah Teather as the youngest MP will barely dent Labour’s Commons’ majority. But the psychological impact is significant. The defeat leaves Mr. Blair to face the party conference later this month as the first Labour leader to lose a by-election for 15 years.

All three main parties agreed the Iraq war — and the doubts cast by the Hutton inquiry over the government’s justification for the conflict — hurt the Labour vote. “It’s mood music which obviously has not played well for us,” Jim Fitzpatrick, the Labour MP, told Sky News.

Public perceptions that Labour has failed to improve public services also hit the party’s core vote, the Lib-Dems claimed. Mr. Blair told Thursday’s cabinet meeting he was determined to drive through contentious reforms, such as university top-up fees. But the Brent East result could make it harder for the prime minister to override opposition from the unions and activists.

The Lib-Dem’s 1,118-vote victory was a humiliating blow for the Conservatives, the main opposition party. The Conservatives failed to hold onto their 2001 second place in the seat, as their share of the vote fell from 18 to 16 per cent. The Tory inability to capitalise on Labour’s mid-term woes will damage morale ahead of next month’s party conference.

Theresa May, the Tory chairman, last night tried to downplay the loss. Brent East was “not a seat where the natural expectation would be for a Conservative victory,” she told the BBC. But the LibDems claimed the “historic” victory reflected their steady progress to becoming the main party of opposition.

“While the tide has turned against New Labour, it remains very far out for the Conservatives,” Lord Rennard, the LibDem campaigns director, said.

The result gives Charles Kennedy, the party leader, a huge fillip before their annual conference which starts on Sunday.