| Tony Blair at the G8 summit on Sea Island, Georgia. (Reuters)
London, June 11 (Reuters): Britons angry over Iraq punished Prime Minister Tony Blair today, relegating his Labour Party to an unprecedented third place in local elections.
“Iraq was a cloud, or indeed a shadow, over these elections,” deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said after the main Opposition Conservatives triumphed along with the Liberal Democrats in results from yesterday’s vote.
“I am not saying we haven’t had a kicking. It’s not a great day for Labour,” said Prescott.
The local council poll outcome, likely to be echoed in European Parliament results on Sunday, will renew speculation about Blair’s leadership. The result of London’s mayoral race may also weigh against Blair’s handling of Iraq.
But analysts still believe Blair — US President George W. Bush’s closest ally over Iraq — will win a third general election, widely expected to be held in 2005. With results in from 144 of the 166 contested councils, his Labour Party had lost a net 388 seats and control of seven councils, including its northern strongholds of Newcastle and Leeds.
BBC projections put Labour’s vote share at 26 per cent, way behind the Conservatives on 38 per cent. The Liberal Democrats, strong opponents of the Iraq war, had 30 per cent.
“What you have got is a government that is clearly unpopular, but a main Opposition party that is not capitalising,” said opinion pollster Peter Kellner.
He said the Conservatives needed 40 per cent or more to be on course for victory at the next general election. The Conservatives, however, were upbeat.
“It has been Labour’s worst electoral performance in living memory and it is the first time that a government has been pushed into third place in mid-term elections,” said Conservative chairman Liam Fox.
The results will heighten calls from some quarters for Blair to give way to his powerful finance minister Gordon Brown.
Blair has said he is “up for” a third general election bid and this week’s unanimous UN Security Council resolution on Iraq offers the prospect of some respite on a persistently damaging issue.
The Conservatives might have fared better were it not for a surge by the previously marginal UK Independence Party (UKIP), which advocates Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.
By 1530 GMT, the Conservatives had made gains of 208 seats and 11 councils. The UKIP won its first council seats.
An opinion poll said the UKIP, tapping into Britons’ wary view of Europe, would win up to 12 of 78 British seats in the European Parliament when the results were declared on Sunday.
The Liberal Democrats, long Britain’s third party, benefited from their opposition to the Iraq war. “Iraq cast a long shadow across these elections,” party leader Charles Kennedy said.
In London, Labour’s Ken Livingstone is tipped to edge to re-election as mayor, but he has wasted no chance to assert his independence from Blair over issues such as Iraq.
A Livingstone win will say little about Blair’s popularity. Labour’s overall battering will be placed squarely at his door.
But Blair still commands a huge majority in parliament.
The Czechs became the first people from behind the old “Iron Curtain” to vote in a European Parliament election today.
Vaclav Havel, the ailing playwright and statesman who led the Czech Republic from communism to the brink of EU membership, was among the first to vote.
“It’s the very first election in history when we share in a decision about the future of our continent,” he said after posting his ballot in a diplomatic quarter at Prague Castle.