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Blair in bleak poll forecast

London, July 9 (Reuters): British Prime Minister Tony Blair, plagued by a string of setbacks that has given hope to the opposition, warned his ruling Labour Party today that it could lose the next election.

Blair swept to power six years ago and has seldom since looked in danger, but a wave of anger over the Iraq war and faltering progress on public services have started to turn the tide, analysts say. He told Labour MPs, who yesterday staged the biggest rebellion of his tenure, to unite and focus on selling Labour’s achievements to head off a challenge from the opposition Conservatives.

“That historic third term is there for us,” he told the packed, closed-door meeting of MPs, according to a party spokesperson. “There’s a tremendous prize. Let’s take that prize and not give it away to the (Conservatives).”

With his government set next month to become the longest-serving Labour administration in UK history, Blair reminded MPs of the potential risks.

“If you look back at our history, we are better at putting ourselves out (of office) than the Conservatives,” he said.

The rallying cry follows months of negative publicity for Blair, who rode a wave of euphoria in 1997 to become Britain’s youngest Prime Minister in nearly two centuries with a Labour Party makeover that rescued it from 18 years in opposition. The next general election is not expected until 2005 but analysts say Labour must regain momentum now.

Despite victory in Iraq, Blair’s credibility has been severely undermined by a failure to unearth any weapons of mass destruction, the primary Anglo-American motive for the war.

His government has been dogged by reports — which it denies — that it “sexed up” evidence of Iraq’s banned armaments to win over a sceptical parliament and public to war.

At home, Labour grassroots unrest with flagship policies like plans to tamper with the publicly funded health service and make students pay for more of their formerly state-funded university education has come to a head. In parliament’s lower house yesterday, Labour’s huge majority was slashed to just 35 in a vote on plans to give top-performing hospitals freedom to govern themselves. That was Blair’s slimmest winning majority since he took office.

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