- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 4, 2005

LONDON — Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to win a record third straight term for his Labor Party in elections tomorrow despite a campaign dogged by sharp criticism of the war in Iraq and his handling of immigration and health care issues.

Most political analysts think the result will be far closer than Mr. Blair’s landslide victories in 1997 and 2001, but opinion polls forecast a comfortable Labor win in the race for the 646 seats in a revamped House of Commons.

With less than 48 hours before the polls open, one crucial survey, the Market & Opinion Research International poll for the Financial Times newspaper, showed Labor with the support of 39 percent of those certain to vote — 10 percentage points more than the main opposition Conservative Party.

That would give Mr. Blair a 146-seat edge in Parliament, down from the current 161 but still a handsome majority with which to run the country.

Reports say he already is mapping out his strategy for a third term, starting with a planned reshuffle of his Cabinet possibly as early as Friday.

The Sunday Telegraph newspaper, quoting Mr. Blair’s “closest confidants,” said a key change would be the turnover of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to John Reid, the health secretary, while Foreign Secretary Jack Straw would be shifted to a lesser Cabinet post.

Mr. Straw, like Mr. Blair, has endured sharp criticism over Britain’s role in the conflict in Iraq, the issue that has drawn the most fire from the opposition parties.

Also said to be on the way out is Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon, who also has been tarred by the Iraq brush and is reported to have told Mr. Blair he has had enough. Mr. Hoon’s replacement could be either Transport Secretary Alistair Darling or Trade Secretary Patricia Hewitt.

The planned reshuffle could reflect a desire by Mr. Blair to make a fresh start on an issue that has troubled his administration since before the conflict in Iraq began in 2003. But the changes also are seen as preparatory for his next major political battle — a referendum next year on whether to accept a proposed European Union constitution.

Almost all opinion polls have shown marked voter opposition to the constitution. Mr. Blair wants it, however, and the key roles in his drive for a “yes” vote are expected to go to the Foreign Office and the Cabinet Office, according to the Sunday Telegraph.

With Mr. Reid leading the Foreign Office and former Home Secretary David Blunkett expected to return from his brief political exile to become a sort of Cabinet “enforcer,” Mr. Blair would have two of his strongest political supporters in place for the referendum campaign.

That is all assuming a victory tomorrow for Mr. Blair and his team — as British bookmakers are anticipating. William Hill Bookmakers made Labor the odds-on favorite to win an overall majority at 1-to-33, the Conservatives a distant 20-to-1 bet and the third-ranking Liberal Democrats a 150-to-1 shot.

It has been a particularly undignified and occasionally nasty campaign, in which some newspapers have labeled Mr. Blair a “liar” over the information and tactics he used to get the nation into an unpopular war. Others have dismissed him as President Bush’s “poodle.”

Such has been the anger that one man, retired ambulance driver Reg Keys, decided to try to unseat Mr. Blair in the County Durham constituency after his 20-year-old soldier son, Tom Keys, was killed by a mob in Iraq as he manned a police station nearly two years ago.

The Conservative Party, under leader Michael Howard, has impressed voters with attacks on what it deems out-of-control immigration into Britain, as well as a problem-plagued health service.

But that has not translated into votes, with Labor holding on to its lead in the opinion polls virtually from Day One of the campaign.

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