In another sign that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is in real trouble, his Labour Party was beaten in a by-election last week. Coming on the heels of a crushing defeat in local elections earlier this month, Labour looks exhausted and desperate for a turnaround in its fortunes. With the British economy on the ropes, no lifeline is apparent.

In Friday’s vote, the Conservative Party candidate easily won the Crewe and Nantwich seat in Parliament that has been in Labour’s hands since it was created in 1983 — since 1945 if a previous incarnation of the district is included — marking the first Labour defeat in a special election in three decades. The 49-31 Conservative-Labour tally was the exact opposite of the results in the 2005 general election.

The results, like those of local elections held at the beginning of the month, reflect concern about Mr. Brown’s handling of the government at a time of economic unease. The vote came as the government announced that the economy had grown just 0.4 percent in the first quarter of 2008, the slowest expansion in three years. With costs rising and housing markets softening, consumers are worried.

That would seem to play to Mr. Brown’s strength. He had a very successful run as finance minister under Prime Minister Tony Blair. But economic fundamentals have weakened and his handling of the government has not inspired confidence. He fumbled early discussions about a general election and his tax reforms hurt many of Britain’s poorest citizens.

Today, Conservative is ahead of Labour in fundraising — about £4.2 million to £3 million in the last quarter — and in opinion polls, sometimes by as much as 25 percentage points. Especially worried are the 165 Labour parliamentarians who won seats in 2005 with smaller margins than that in Crewe. Ostensibly, Mr. Brown has to call a general election by 2010, he may not make it that long: Much rides on the next special election to be held in a few months just outside London.

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