| Corporal Clifford Thompson of the US army looks through the damaged windscreen of his Humvee in Tikrit. (Reuters)
London, Sept. 19 (Reuters): Prime Minister Tony Blair suffered his first parliamentary election defeat since taking power six years ago today, losing a seat in a stinging setback that revealed the political toll of war on Iraq.
The multi-ethnic north London constituency of Brent East, whose member of parliament Paul Daisley died earlier this year, should have been iron-clad for Blair’s Labour Party, which has held it for years.
But the count in the early hours of this morning showed victory for Sarah Teather, whose Liberal Democratic party opposed the Iraq war. She becomes parliament’s youngest member at 29 and brings the number of her party’s MPs in the 659-seat House of Commons to 54. Although the loss to Blair’s huge Commons majority is itself inconsequential, it was the first time Labour had been voted out in a byelection since he took office.
“We are going through a bad patch, no doubt about it,” acknowledged government minister Nick Raynsford. The defeat comes in an atmosphere of post-Iraq recriminations, with polls showing most Britons no longer trust him and as the annual Labour Party conference looms, with activists angry about a war they opposed.
It was Labour’s own natural urban, Left-leaning core constituency that turned on Blair in Brent. As she arrived to cast her ballot at the Willesden Green Library, pensioner Mary Farrell, said: “We voted Labour and we put in Tony Blair and nobody likes what is happening now. We are disgusted and fed up. We want to send him a message and the only way to do that is to vote for someone else.”
Blair’s public trust ratings have eroded since the war, with most Britons now doubting the case he made for attacking Iraq.
The scepticism has worsened since the suicide of government weapons scientist David Kelly, who slashed his wrist after being exposed as the source of a news report that said the intelligence community thought Blair had hyped the case. Many blame the government for his death.
Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, a consistent opponent of the war who has positioned Britain’s centrist, third-biggest party to take advantage of the Left’s rising discontent toward Blair, said the doubts go deeper than Iraq.
“Iraq has really led to a lot of questions about trust, motivation,” he told the BBC. “It led to an awful sense of doubt both about Tony Blair personally and about this administration.”
Labour Party chairman Ian McCartney said the media was partly to blame for focusing on Iraq, distracting voters from Blair’s domestic agenda.
Blair was barely mentioned by Labour in the byelection campaign. His one consolation was that the main opposition Conservatives, who backed him on the war, finished a poor third.