LONDON—British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Labor Party won a historic third term Thursday, according to a national exit poll, but a projected significant loss of seats in parliament may endanger his ability to get much done.
After a campaign dominated by the Iraq war, many Labor supporters apparently defected. An exit poll by two major television networks, announced just after the British polls closed at 10 p.m. London time, suggested that the Labor majority would be reduced from 160 seats in the House of Commons, the more powerful lower house of the British parliament, to 66. If that held, Labor would have won the lowest share of the popular vote of any winner in modern history. Such polls have usually proved right, but one was famously wrong when it projected a Labor victory in 1992.
Despite the projected narrow margin, the apparent victory cements Blair's status as the most consequential British political figure of his generation, the man who steered the Labor Party from rigid socialism into an embrace of the free market and the center-right of British politics.
Blair's imprint on Britain eventually may be considered as significant as that of the Conservative Iron Lady of the 1980s, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in part because he co-opted some of her zeal for capitalism while boosting investment in the expansive public sector that Britons demand.
But Blair's decision to stand with President Bush and take his country into the Iraq war appears to have hobbled his win. Bush is widely disliked in Europe, and the vast majority of Blair's constituents think the war was wrong. Questions about whether Blair misrepresented prewar intelligence hounded him through the final days of the race.
"There is obviously a major campaign that has been run against Tony Blair personally, and that has had an impact," former cabinet minister David Blunkett told the BBC Thursday night. "I think regrettably, Iraq has drowned out some of the debates we should have been having."
Under Blair, who defeated Conservative Prime Minister John Major in 1997 and won re-election by a landslide in 2001, the British economy has boomed, far outpacing the other large nations of Europe. But the prime minister, who turns 52 on Friday and is often compared to former President Clinton, has in many ways been unable to get past the Iraq controversy.
A small majority of the British public initially supported the war, but that support evaporated when it became clear that the main justification—Saddam Hussein's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction—was unfounded.
Left-of-center voters, who loathed the war but supported the Labor Party's positions on issues such as health care, transportation and schools, faced an unpleasant choice. A columnist for the Guardian newspaper, Polly Toynbee, offered such people wooden nose pegs so that they could squeeze their nostrils and vote Labor.
A victory by Blair would represent the first time in history that Labor had won a consecutive third term.
Blair faced a weak major opponent in the Conservative Party and its leader, Michael Howard, who's expected to step aside after the apparent defeat. The Tories couldn't capitalize on public frustration over Iraq because they supported the war, and they failed to gain traction with a coherent message.
The third major party, the Liberal Democrats, was a factor only in that it drew some disaffected Labor supporters.
The monthlong campaign was seen as fairly lackluster. In addition to attacking Blair's credibility over Iraq, the Tories criticized his immigration policies, which have allowed more than a million newcomers into Britain since 1997. Blair promised tougher rules, but he accused the Tories of pandering to irrational fears.
Blair has said he won't run for a fourth term, and there's a widespread expectation that he'll step aside in the next few years in favor of his heir apparent, Gordon Brown, chancellor of the exchequer.
Brown, a dour Scotsman, gets credit for good management of Britain's economy, if not for his charisma.
William Jones, a political analyst at Manchester University, told The Associated Press that a 66-seat margin would make governing difficult for Blair.
"Anything under 100, he is in for a tough time," Jones said. "Under 50 he will be in terrible difficulties—I think we will see him disappear very quickly."
As prime minister for the last eight years, Blair has continued the trend toward privatization and deregulation started by Thatcher.
Britain's economy is the most dynamic of the large European countries and far closer to the U.S. model than France or Germany, welfare states with rigid labor laws that make hiring and firing difficult. But Britain's social model is much more geared toward smoothing out social inequality than America's—a 17 percent sales tax and a 40 percent top tax rate help pay for benefits such as free health care and generous unemployment aid.
Indeed, Blair ran into trouble when he tried to introduce modest tuition fees for university students.
On foreign policy, Blair helped bring about a historic breakthrough in the Northern Ireland dispute. He also tried to act as a bridge between continental Europe and the United States. Blair believes in the process of European unification, but he and Brown kept Britain out of the European single currency, in part because the public was deeply skeptical.
(Dilanian reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050505 UK election result
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