- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 3, 2008

LONDON — Voters dealt British Prime Minister Gordon Brown a stunning setback and his ruling Labor Party its worst defeat in 40 years in Thursday’s local elections that saw the main opposition Conservatives sweep to victory in city and town halls across the land.

The biggest blow came when Conservative Boris Johnson ousted Labor’s “Red” Ken Livingstone as mayor of London after two terms in what was billed as Britain’s political battle of the year.

At stake was leadership of a sprawling city of 7.5 million residents and the $22 billion annual budget it takes to run it, and the $19 billion extravaganza that will be the 2012 Olympic Games to be hosted by the city.

A chastened Mr. Brown conceded it had been a “bad night” for Labor and vowed that he would “learn the lessons” from the biggest reversal in his 10-month rule as prime minister, a job he took — unelected — when Tony Blair stepped down after 10 years in June.

It was something of an understatement. The sweep of votes that saw Labor lose at least 331 town hall seats while the Conservatives gained at least 256 represented the worst local election setback for Labor since the late 1960s.

Overall, Labor’s projected share of the vote in England and Wales was pegged at 24 percent, while the Conservatives, led by a youthful David Cameron, tallied 44 percent. Even the third-party Liberal Democrats outdid the Laborites, winning 25 percent of the votes.

Political analysts for the Times newspaper of London suggested that if the same figures were applied to a general election, which Mr. Brown must call by May 2010, the Conservatives would win a landslide majority in Parliament of between 138 and 164 seats — and install Mr. Cameron as prime minister.

Mr. Johnson, a disheveled figure seen as something of an eccentric in British politics, got 1,168,738 first preference and eligible second preference votes while Mr. Livingstone received a combined total of 1,028,966 votes, according to official results released early today.

Despite an often bad-tempered campaign, Mr. Johnson, a gaffe-prone former journalist, paid tribute to Mr. Livingstone in his acceptance speech as a “considerable public servant and a distinguished leader of this city,” particularly after the July 7, 2005, suicide bomb attacks, according to Agence France-Presse.

On his own election success, he added: “I do not for one minute believe that this election shows that London has been transformed overnight into a Conservative city.

“But I do hope it does show that the Conservatives have changed into a party that can again be trusted.”

For his part, Mr. Livingstone said he had been proud to serve and offered the new mayor his help.

“But in whatever role, I will continue, whilst I live and breath, to live in this city and love in this city, to work to make it better,” he added.

Mr. Livingstone, a left-winger known for hobnobbing with Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez and battling the U.S. Embassy over a car-use tax in the city, had been running neck-and-neck with Mr. Johnson in polls ahead of Thursday’s vote, with Liberal Democrat candidate Brian Paddick running third.

A defeat in London was seen as nothing short of a crowning blow against the prime minister, even though he and Mr. Livingstone had rarely seen eye to eye.

“It’s clear to me that this has been a disappointing night, indeed, a bad night for Labor,” Mr. Brown told journalists. But he pledged that his job now was “to listen and to lead.”

Mr. Brown is in deep political trouble, even in his own Labor Party, with its popularity in opinion polls falling to its lowest level in 21 years, ahead of Thursday’s local elections.

Mr. Cameron told journalists: “This is a very big moment for the Conservative Party — but I don’t want anyone to think that we would deserve to win an election on the back of a failing government.

“I want us to really prove to people that we can make the changes that they want to see.”

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