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Heavy losses for Britain's Blair in local vote

Written by: Staff

LONDON, May: British Prime Minister Tony Blair was expected to reshuffle his cabinet today after his ruling Labour Party recorded one of its worst defeats in a local election since coming to power in 1997.

After accusations of government incompetence and sleaze over the past few weeks, the poor results could spark fresh calls for Blair to step down sooner rather than later.

Early results today posted on a BBC Web Site showed Labour had lost 238 of the 4,360 council seats contested in England while a resurgent opposition Conservative party under new leader David Cameron gained 250.

''It's not a good night for us, it's a poor night,'' cabinet minister John Reid told BBC television.

Critics have attacked Blair in the past two weeks over a spate of scandals including the failure to consider deporting foreign prisoners, hospital staff cuts and his married deputy's admission that he had an affair.

''The Conservatives have had their best result since 1992 and it shows they are on the way back,'' said Mori pollster Ben Page.

''But it doesn't mean that Labour are going to lose the next election. It just shows it will be close. This is far from meltdown,'' he told Reuters.

Cabinet member Geoff Hoon said he expected Blair to shake up his team today in a bid to give his government new impetus.

''This seems to be about the right time, it is time for a new team to take over,'' Hoon told BBC television. ''There is going to be a (cabinet) reshuffle, I am sure.'' With results in from 163 out of 167 councils, Labour had lost 238 seats compared with 250 gains for the Conservatives and one gain for the Liberal Democrats, Britain's third party.

Analysts had said the loss of many more than 200 seats would be seen as a bad result for Labour.

''The real question is what will Labour MPs (members of parliament) do now. Blair will be in trouble if a significant number of Labour MPs are sufficiently rattled by these results to say they might lose their own seats unless Blair goes,'' said YouGov's pollster Peter Kellner. ''These results are not quite bad enough for it to be automatic for Labour MPs to step in. But on the other hand, it's all on the cusp,'' he told Reuters.

Voters in Britain traditionally use local elections to punish the government of the day.

Blair, who won his third straight election in 2005, has said he will quit before the next general election, due in 2010, but has not set a date.

Very poor results could increase calls from within Labour for Blair to name a departure date, or hand power to his presumed successor, Finance Minister Gordon Brown.

The poll was also a crucial test for the Conservatives under new leader Cameron who is trying to transform his party into a modern, caring political force and drag it out of the wilderness after three straight election defeats.

''This is a good start,'' Conservative chairman Francis Maude told BBC television. ''We are continuing to build our support while Labour's melts away.'' The Conservatives did well in the capital London, taking control of key boroughs including Croydon but failed to gain any seats in the northern cities of Liverpool and Manchester, seen as a crucial step if they are to succeed in national elections.

Labour also suffered losses to the far-right British National Party, which made gains most notably in the London suburb of Barking and Dagenham after campaigning on a fiercely anti-immigrant agenda.


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