- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

LONDON — Millions of Britons vote in local elections today that have become a referendum on how long Prime Minister Tony Blair will be able to keep his job.

If the Laborites lose 200 or more town-hall seats — as many analysts expect — rebels in Mr. Blair’s Labor Party say they will move against him. They can either demand that he name a precise date for his departure, or force a leadership election.

“We are reaching the position where, in order to restore confidence, we need change at the top,” said Geraldine Smith, a senior Labor member of Parliament.

About 23 million voters are eligible to cast ballots to decide 4,360 of Britain’s 19,579 local government seats.

But the election also is seen as a “yes or no” vote of confidence in Mr. Blair, his government and two senior Cabinet ministers.

Home Secretary Charles Clarke is under fire to resign because of his department’s decision to release scores of foreign convicts, including murderers and rapists, without deportation hearings.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott is under similar pressure to quit over an extramarital affair with a secretary.

These scandals, coupled with growing voter disenchantment with Britain’s role in the Iraq conflict, a health service hobbled by a deficit of more than $2 billion and accusations that the Labor Party gave away peerages in exchange for millions of dollars in “loans,” have left the Blair administration vulnerable.

The prime minister, a year into his third term, says he plans to step down before the next election, which must be held no later than 2010.

But opinion polls show the Labor Party at its lowest popularity ebb in 19 years, and accusations of scandal and incompetence have left Mr. Blair the target of demands that he leave sooner rather than later.

As a result, today’s local elections are expected to play a key role in deciding Mr. Blair’s political future.

The Times of London newspaper suggested that Labor “faces its greatest disaster at the ballot box” in nearly 40 years.

The Blair forces are geared for some losses, despite Mr. Blair’s plea that voters focus on his government’s nine-year record in office rather than the “difficulties” of the past two weeks.

Incumbent British governments often take a battering in midterm local elections, but the question this time is one of degree.

There is almost never a sure thing in British politics, and the widespread view in this election is that Mr. Blair will hang on for as long as possible before handing over the prime ministerial reins to his all-but-anointed successor waiting in the wings — his treasury chief, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown.

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