| Parmjit Singh Gill of the Liberal Democrats smiles after winning the byelection in the Leicester constituency. (Reuters)
London, July 16 (Reuters): The toll of the Iraq war hit Tony Blair in two electoral strongholds today when Britain’s ruling Labour Party suffered a stinging byelection defeat and narrowly avoided losing another.
A minority anti-war party overturned a Labour majority of more than 13,000 in the central city of Leicester to win the seat by more than 1,600 votes.
It was the latest in a string of poor results for Blair since the Iraq invasion which started with a parliamentary election in London last September and carried through local and European election results last month.
But the results were even worse for the main Opposition Conservatives, underpinning opinion polls that suggest Blair will win re-election in a general election expected next year despite deep disquiet over the US-British invasion of Iraq.
“Iraq has become totemic for underpinning an awful lot of other issues where people now no longer trust this government,” said Charles Kennedy, leader of the Left-of-Centre Liberal Democrats who won the Leicester seat.
The poll results followed a report on Iraq this week that damned the flawed intelligence that Blair used — and some voters believe abused — to justify an unpopular war.
But with mid-term polls traditionally used by electors to punish incumbents and the report’s author Lord Butler stopping short of personal attacks, Blair now hopes to draw a line on his Iraq policy.
“The Prime Minister’s position is absolutely secure,” trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt said. “He will lead us into the election and will be winning an historic third term.”
In the city of Birmingham, Labour hung on to the Hodge Hill seat by 460 votes from the Liberal Democrats, its 2001 majority of 11,000 all but wiped out.
The Conservatives — a shadow of the mighty electoral machine commanded by former leader Margaret Thatcher —came third in both polls.
Both constituencies have large Muslim populations, making them prime candidates for an anti-war backlash.
“The justification which Tony Blair gave for backing George Bush was wrong,” the Liberal Democrats’ Parmjit Singh Gill said in his victory speech in Leicester.
Blair’s public trust ratings have plunged since he took Britain to war in Iraq last year and Wednesday’s report into intelligence failings on Iraq gave his critics fresh ammunition.
Butler absolved Blair of distorting intelligence but contradicted his claim that weapons of mass destruction were ready for use.
He also questioned how intelligence was used, leading to accusations the government plays by its own rules.
The losses make barely a dent in Blair’s 161-seat House of Commons majority and he remains on track for victory nationally.
An opinion poll by Populus last week gave Labour 33 per cent and the Conservatives 29 percent. Analysts say the Opposition should be polling far higher to harbour real hopes of victory. Blair can now turn to a probable cabinet reshuffle next week and announcements of his five-year plans for public services.