The Labour Party of British Prime Minister Tony Blair won a third consecutive parliamentary election on Thursday. The victory is vindication for Mr. Blair, although he has been wounded by the results: His parliamentary majority is much reduced. The key question is how much time the prime minister has before he becomes a lame duck. Despite pressing agenda items, attention has already focused on the search for his successor.
It is the first time the Labour Party has won three consecutive elections since 1900. The only other contemporary British politician of any party to match Mr. Blair’s success was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s.
Still, only 35 to 36 percent vote nationwide went to Labour, the lowest winning share for a party in British parliamentary history. Near-final results gave Labour a 66-seat majority in the 646-seat House of Commons, much reduced from the 167-seat margin Labour enjoyed in the previous House.
The Conservative Party has something to celebrate after all: Having picked up some 30 seats, the Tories have returned from the wilderness. With Mr. Blair looking vulnerable, Conservatives are crowing that the prime minister is now a liability to his party. That may be an exaggeration, but plainly Mr. Blair is no longer the electoral asset that he once was.
Yet the election also sent a clear signal to Conservatives that their party needs to stand for something more than mere opposition to Mr. Blair. The Conservative campaign was largely a negative one that made immigration and crime key issues. Unable to win over enough voters, party chairman Mr. Michael Howard resigned shortly after the deciding results were in.
Mr. Blair’s biggest problem was his support for the war in Iraq. The death of a British soldier days before the vote plus revelations that the prime minister received ambiguous legal advice about the war and then withheld it from the public kept the issue in the minds of British voters. Unfortunately for the Conservatives, their support for the war blunted their ability to use the issue against Mr. Blair.
The prime minister acknowledged the difficulties he faces in his victory speech, noting that “Iraq has been a deeply divisive issue in this country . . . (But) after this election people want to move on.” Having “listened and learned,” he pledged to focus on issues of more direct concern to voters — health care, education and law and order — during his third term.
If Iraq was his weak point, the strength and solidity of the British economy throughout Mr. Blair’s tenure won the confidence of many voters. British gross domestic product expanded 3.1 percent last year and is projected to grow 3 to 3.5 percent this year, although some private economists think that estimate is inflated. Britain has outperformed other European economies throughout Mr. Blair’s term in office. Credit for that strong performance goes to Mr. Gordon Brown, chancellor of the Exchequer, and the man widely tipped to succeed Mr. Blair when he steps down as prime minister.
Speculation is now focusing on whether Mr. Blair will serve his full five-year term before retiring, as he pledged. The chief threat to a successful term in office does not come from the opposition but from radical members of his own party. A bloc of 30 to 40 members has consistently opposed the prime minister’s programs, and they are generally considered more sympathetic to Mr. Brown. The fact that the chancellor lacks Mr. Blair’s flair might not be a problem if voters tend to associate “flair” with being overly flexible with the truth.
British foreign policy is unlikely to change in the aftermath of the vote. No British prime minister can afford to damage the “special relationship” with the United States. Mr. Blair will try to use his influence in Washington to get the Bush administration to push for progress in relations between Israelis and Palestinians. Trans-Atlantic ties will be tested if negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program — led by Britain, France and Germany — break down and Washington pushes for action by the United Nations Security Council.
Securing some form of debt relief for the world’s poorest nations is a priority since Britain will host the next Group of Eight summit. Finally, there is the referendum to be held next year on the proposed EU constitution. The document will have to be reconsidered if a single state rejects it. Britain has long debated closer ties to the Union and approval is by no means guaranteed.
Mr. Blair has much to accomplish and it is unclear how much he has been wounded by his win. It is churlish, however, to deny his remarkable accomplishment. Moreover, history shows that it would be dangerous to underestimate his ability to recoup and refocus after this week’s ballot.
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