Tony Blair leads Labour to historic third term

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British prime minister Tony Blair secured a historic third term early Friday morning, though early results showed his Labour party’s majority was set to be slashed by more than half.

With more than 80 per cent of the results declared, Mr Blair appeared to be on course for a Commons majority of around 70, down from the 161 that Labour enjoyed at the end of the last parliament.

His victory marks the first time that any Labour leader has won three successive general elections. But senior allies of the prime minister acknowledged that Labour’s vote had badly fragmented in favour of both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in a complex three-way election that saw the government pay heavily for its support for the US in the Iraq war.

After arriving back in London on Friday Mr Blair told supporters at a victory rally: “We’ve got a mandate to govern this country again. Yes there are good comrades who have fallen. But there are also extraordinary results that have come through tonight.”

Earlier the prime minister said the British people wanted the return of a Labour government but “with a reduced majority”. He said Labour must respond “sensibly and wisely” and was candid about the damage anti-war feeling had done to the party's hopes. “I know that Iraq has been a divisive issue but I hope now that we can unite again and look to the future.”

Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer, sounded contrite. “I promise that we will listen and we will learn so that we can serve our country and our communities better in the years to come,” he said.

The sharp drop in Labour's majority will be a disappointment for Mr Blair, raising questions about his ability to push through a radical reform programme in his third term. This is because around 50 Labour MPs who repeatedly rebelled against Mr Blair were set to be re-elected to the Commons on Thursday night.

Mr Blair will also have to fend off allegations that his new government lacks popular legitimacy. Its share of the national vote, at around 36 per cent, is set to be the lowest secured by any party with a clear Commons majority in modern times.

Michael Howard and the Conservatives regained political momentum by retaking swaths of marginal Labour-held seats while protecting their most vulnerable constituencies from the Liberal Democrats.

The Tories won high-profile victories, unseating three Labour ministers Stephen Twigg in Enfield Southgate, Christopher Leslie in Shipley and Melanie Johnson in Welwyn Hatfield. But the Conservative share of the national vote at 33 per cent was up only marginally from 2001, raising serious doubts about whether the party has gained a platform from which it can win the next general election.

The Liberal Democrats looked set to end up with around 60 seats, the highest number they have had at Westminster since the 1920s. Charles Kennedy, Liberal Democrat leader, declared: “The era of three party politics right across the country is now with us.”

> The Lib Dems took a swath of seats from Labour, including Manchester Withington, Cardiff Central and Hornsey and Wood Green. But they had less success than they might have hoped for against the Conservatives, failing to achieve their “decapitation strategy” against leading Tories such as Oliver Letwin and David Davis. They did, however, take Solihull, which had been a Tory seat since it was created in 1945.

Turnout was expected to be higher as a result of the trebling in numbers of people registered to vote by post.

There was more bad news for Mr Blair when George Galloway, leader of the Respect party, defeated Labour candidate Oona King in Bethnal Green and Bow.

The capture of Mr Twigg's north London seat was also a significant psychological blow for Labour. Mr Twigg's shock defeat of Michael Portillo, the Tory former cabinet minister, after a 17-point swing in 1997 came to symbolise New Labour's trouncing of the incumbent government. The defeat of a string of Labour ministers means that Mr Blair's government reshuffle may now be wider than expected.

Alan Milburn, Labour's election co-ordinator, also announced on Thursday night that he had told Mr Blair he would not be seeking to stay in his cabinet.

Senior Labour figures acknowledged that anger over the Iraq war had been a reason for the fall in their vote. But as they waited to see the precise size of Labour's majority, they hailed Mr Blair's achievement in securing a third successive victory.

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