Friday, May 06, 2005

Blair ‘Heads for third term in Downing St’

• Gibraltar must work to gain new supporters

Tony Blair was heading last night for a historic third term in office - but with a sharply reduced Commons majority of 66, according to a joint BBC-ITV News exit poll.

His 161-seat majority will be slashed, according to the Mori-NOP survey of 16,000 voters in 120 constituencies, with Labour having 356 MPs to the Tories’ 209.

Jack Straw Foreign Secretary retained his seat but lost some 4,000 votes.

The poll shows the Liberal Democrats actually losing ground to have just 53 MPs instead of their current 55.

Labour, according to the poll, would see their number of MPs tumble from their present 409, with the Tories boosted from their current 164.

But in all events Gibraltar now faces a challenge of having to gain new supporters in the Commons as some pro-Gibraltar 20 MPs from the range of the parties are no longer there and another 20 or so have moved to the House of Lords.

“We will have to work very hard to ensure continued support form Gibraltar. Many of our friends have moved on and I shall be watching the details of results very closely to see how the result affects us,” Albert Poggio, Gibraltar’s man in London said last night.

Tony Banks, Nigel Jones, Donald Anderson, Gillian Shepherd and Virginia Bottomley are amongst the MPs moving to the House of Lords.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said:

“It’s just too difficult to call. I always want a good result, I always want to see a Labour Government and there’s going to be a Labour Government - there’s no doubt about that."

If true, the exit poll will have confirmed Labour’s worst fears that nationwide polling showing them comfortably ahead of the other two parties, and heading for a three-figure majority, seriously under-estimated the effect of Tory and Lib Dem campaigning in key marginal seats.

Labour is haunted by the 1992 election when surveys showed them ahead, only for the Tories under John Major to be returned to office.

Polls closed at 10pm yesterday after an intensive three-and-a-half week campaign with Mr Blair, Tory leader Michael Howard and the Lib Dems’ Charles Kennedy criss-crossing the country clocking up thousands of campaign miles.

Mr Howard had targeted issues such as immigration and asylum that he hoped would bring voters back to the Tory fold.

If he has cut back Mr Blair’s majority by the size the poll suggests, the Conservative leader will see it as a vindication of his campaigning tactics.
And the Prime Minister’s plans to serve a full term, before a smooth handover of power when he steps down, could be called into question as maverick backbenchers will inevitably call for him to go sooner rather than later.

Mr Blair roped in Chancellor Gordon Brown early on in his bid to woo voters, having said he will quit before the next election - appearing to anoint Mr Brown as his successor.

Labour insisted throughout that a protest vote for the Lib Dems because of concerns over issues such as Iraq would let the Conservatives into government.

Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy dismissed the tactic as “claptrap’’ and repeatedly urged voters to curb Mr Blair’s Commons majority so that he could not “ride roughshod’’ over Parliament and his own party.

But if the party has slipped back, it will put renewed question marks over his leadership. Labour’s election co-ordinator Alan Milburn said:

“There’s a health warning on any exit poll, but if this exit poll is right, then Labour would have secured a third term in government for the first time in our party’s history.

Tony Blair would be only the second Prime Minister in history to win three General Elections in a row with a mandate and a majority for a New Labour programme of government."

Tory co-chairman Liam Fox said:

“There is only one poll that matters and that is the one when the real ballot papers are counted.

But if this prediction were true, it is clear that the public want to cut Tony Blair down to size and make him more accountable."

In the first actual result to be declared, Labour’s Chris Mullin, a junior Foreign Office minister, held his seat in Sunderland South but with a reduced majority and a swing to the Conservatives of 3.9%. Mr Mullin’s 13,667 majority was cut to 11,059 - and a Press Association prediction based on that one result being reflected nationwide showed a possible Labour majority of 90.


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