- The Washington Times - Friday, May 6, 2005

LONDON — Despite Tony Blair’s historic third term victory as Britain’s prime minister, ongoing dissension within the ranks of his own ruling Labor Party could mean a rough ride during his final years in power.

Mr. Blair, accustomed to large majorities in Parliament since 1997, is expected to be cramped by the sharply reduced margin of victory that voters disenchanted over Iraq gave him in Thursday’s elections.

His power in the new 646-seat House of Commons shapes up as significantly less in practice than would seem to be indicated by the 66-seat majority that he won.

Yesterday Mr. Blair spent much of his time putting the finishing touches on a new Cabinet.

As expected, Mr. Blair continued his powerful treasurer, Gordon Brown, as chancellor of the exchequer. Mr. Brown’s strong handling of the economy played a key role in securing the government’s re-election, and he is widely viewed as Mr. Blair’s likely successor should the prime minister not serve the full term.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, a strong ally in defense of the Labor government’s decision to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, also kept his job.

Geoff Hoon, the defense secretary who took much of the heat from critics of the Iraq war, was replaced by John Reid, Mr. Blair’s tough-talking health minister. Mr. Hoon will become the government’s leader in the House of Commons.

Mr. Blair’s friend and ally, David Blunkett, who was forced to quit as home secretary last year after he was embroiled in a messy affair with a married American publisher, was brought back as work and pensions secretary. He will have his work cut out for him as the new government tries to cope with Britain’s looming pensions crisis.

In British political history, Mr. Blair’s third consecutive term as prime minister is matched only by archnemesis Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s-80s — but the price he paid was a loss of 95 seats.

The numbers tell the story. With a 66-seat majority, it takes only 34 Labor members of Parliament to oppose him to threaten an embarrassing loss on any issue — and there are at least 50 hard-line Labor opponents of Mr. Blair who can be all but counted on to vote against him on a variety of issues.

His handling of the war in Iraq and its bitter aftermath cost the prime minister dearly at the polls.

There were other divisive issues, not least of which were the Blair government proposals for tough new anti-terrorism laws and identity cards for all British citizens.

Mr. Blair, who said this is his last term, apparently plans to focus more on a domestic agenda.

“I want to make this a particular priority in this government — how we bring back a proper sense of respect in our schools, in our communities, in our towns, in our villages,” he said.

But even that could be difficult. Michael Howard, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, has accused the Blair government of allowing unbridled immigration, of running a health care service filled with dirty hospitals and of overseeing a national transportation network that’s in shambles.

Mr. Blair is still faced with those issues, although Mr. Howard won’t be around to lead the fight. Hours after guiding his party to a third consecutive general election defeat, Mr. Howard announced he would step down as Tory leader.

Mr. Blair also faces a major battle in his effort to persuade a skeptical British public to vote “yes” in a referendum on the new European Constitution expected next year.

Perhaps the most astonishing result of Thursday’s election was former Labor Member of Parliament George Galloway’s victory over his pro-war Labor opponent, Oona King, in a heavily Muslim constituency in London.

Mr. Galloway was drummed out of the Labor Party over accusations he was too cozy with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and his own opposition to the war in that country.

“Blair should be sacked,” Mr. Galloway said after he earned the right to continue criticizing the prime minister in Parliament. “This is for Iraq,” Mr. Galloway said.

In Northern Ireland, the biggest casualty of Thursday’s vote was Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble, who spent years struggling to sustain Protestant support for Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord.

In contrast, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams won easy re-election as a member of the British Parliament.

“It’s a very, very proud and humbling day for me,” said Mr. Adams, a reputed IRA commander whose party refuses to take its seats in the House of Commons in London because it requires an oath of allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II.

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