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Blair's Labor Party wins narrow majority in Britain, exit poll shows

LONDON—British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Labor Party won election to a historic third term Thursday, according to a national exit poll, but a significant loss of seats in Parliament may endanger Blair's ability to get much done.

Still, the apparent win cements Blair's status as the most consequential British political figure of his generation, the man who steered the Labor Party from 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, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in part because he co-opted some of her zeal for capitalism while investing in the expansive public sector Britons aren't prepared to live without.

Under Blair, who defeated Conservative Prime Minister John Major in 1997 and won by a landslide in 2001, the British economy has boomed, far outpacing other large nations of Europe.

But the prime minister, who turns 52 on Friday and is often compared to former President Bill Clinton, was hobbled in recent years by his decision to stand with President Bush and take Britain into the Iraq war.

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.

Questions about whether Blair misrepresented the evidence of those weapons hounded Blair through the final days of the campaign and appear to have trimmed his victory.

A BBC exit poll, announced after the British polls closed at 10 p.m. London time, suggested that the Labor majority will be reduced from 160 seats in the House of Commons, the more powerful lower house of the British parliament, to 66.

If that holds, Labor would have won the lowest share of the popular vote of any winner in modern British history. Such polls usually have proved right, but one was famously wrong when it falsely projected a Labor victory in 1992.

The win would make it the first time in history that the Labor Party has won a consecutive third term.

Blair faced a weak opponent in the Conservative Party and its leader Michael Howard. 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. One conservative theme, a campaign for restrictions on immigration, seemed to have backfired in some quarters.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050505 UK election result

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