- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2005

LONDON — Millions of British voters went to the polls yesterday in elections that appeared on course for a historic third straight victory for embattled Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Labor Party, despite the nation’s increasing disenchantment over Iraq.

Early exit polls indicated that Mr. Blair and his government were headed for an impressive win, but one that was well short of the landslide conquests that put him in power in 1997 and renewed his mandate in 2001. The shrinking support could prove costly to the prime minister in the years immediately ahead.

The BBC and ITV television stations projected Labor would win 356 seats in the new 646-seat Parliament, ahead of the Conservatives with 209. The Liberal Democrats — the only party to have opposed the Iraq war — were projected in third place with 53 seats — for them a disappointing gain of two seats.

In the current Parliament, which has 659 seats, Labor holds 387 seats.

A key exit poll, carried out jointly by the National Opinion Poll (NOP) and Market and Opinion Research International (MORI) organizations minutes after the polls closed at 10 p.m. British time, forecast a majority in Parliament for Labor, but a sharp decline from the current 161.

The NOP/MORI poll, based on 19,800 voters at 120 voting stations across Britain, predicted that the Labor Party would win with 37 percent of the vote against 33 percent for the main opposition Conservative Party, 22 percent for the third-party Liberal Democrats and 8 percent for a spread of minor parties.

“Labor is going to be the next government — it’s as simple as that,” announced a jubilant Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott 11 minutes after the last ballot was cast.

But the result shaped up as far closer than had been expected for Mr. Blair and his Labor Party, which had led in virtually every opinion poll throughout the monthlong campaign, often by as much as 10 percent over the frustrated Tories.

Such a sharp narrowing of his majority in Parliament could have an impact on what shapes up as Mr. Blair’s next major challenge, trying to convince a deeply skeptical British public that it should vote “yes” in a referendum expected next year on the new European Union constitution.

“I think that [the election result] is going to damage … his standing in the party,” said Anthony King, professor of politics at Essex University. “He is no longer the magician he once was.”

After winning his own seat in Sedgefield, northern England, a somber Mr. Blair was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying, “If, and I say if, the predictions are right, it looks like the Labor Party is heading for the first time in its history for a historic third term.

“It seems clear … that also the British people wanted the return of a Labor government but with a reduced majority.”

He acknowledged the impact of his support for war in Iraq.

“I know Iraq has been a divisive issue in this country, but I hope we now can unite again in the future,” he said.

All but one of the 646 seats in Parliament’s House of Commons were at stake in the elections. The vote for the remaining seat was postponed because of the death of one candidate.

With generally fine weather across the land, voters turned out in large numbers to determine who would run the country for a maximum of five more years.

Good weather generally favors Labor, but early indications were that voter anger over the party’s leading the nation into an unpopular war in Iraq and Mr. Blair’s subsequent handling of the conflict were continuing to haunt the prime minister, at a cost to his party in a number of marginal seats.

The Tories also hammered at Mr. Blair and his government over a range of other contentious issues, including accusations of rampant immigration, a health service dogged by dirty hospitals and the degeneration of the nation’s transportation network into one of the worst in Europe.

But Mr. Blair played to his government’s strength, in maintaining a strong economy on both the domestic and international fronts under Gordon Brown, his chancellor of the treasury.

Even before the vote-counting began last night, the prime minister had begun sculpting his new Cabinet, and — however reluctantly — Mr. Brown is his choice to remain in that post, at least for the time being.

It was a reluctant choice because Mr. Blair and Mr. Brown are not the best of friends, but need each other for strong governance. It also might be a temporary choice because the prime minister has hinted that he will step down sometime during this, his third term — and Mr. Brown is widely expected to be his successor.

Confident of victory even before the polls closed, Mr. Blair was preparing to announce his new Cabinet possibly as early as today, his 52nd birthday, and some changes could be in the works, not least because of the continuing rancor over Iraq.

One was expected to be Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon, who is thought to have asked Mr. Blair to relieve him of that duty because he is tired of taking the flak over the war and its aftermath. His replacement was expected to be either Transport Secretary Alistair Darling or Trade Secretary Patricia Hewitt.

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