Blair faces by-election battle over Iraq war decision

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair is facing a series of potentially damaging by-election battles that are likely to put Labour on the defensive over his stance on Iraq.

Tony Blair is facing a series of potentially damaging by-election battles that are likely to put Labour on the defensive over his stance on Iraq.

Yesterday, a by-election was triggered in a Labour seat after Terry Davis, MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, was elected secretary general of the Council of Europe.

Mr Blair is already under pressure in Leicester South, where another by-election is looming after the death of the Labour MP Jim Marshall. The by-elections could not come at a worse time for Mr Blair who suffered humiliating losses in the recent local and Euro elections.

He may also have to contest a by-election in Hartlepool if Peter Mandelson, the sitting MP, succeeds in winning a job as Britain's EU commissioner in Brussels.

In Birmingham and Leicester, Labour will have to fight off a tough challenge from the Liberal Democrats who are expected to pick up a high proportion of ethnic minority and student votes.

Although Mr Marshall and Mr Davis enjoyed comfortable majorities, the Liberal Democrats believe they are within striking distance of winning both seats from Labour as they have made sizeable gains on both local authorities. They also believe they can squeeze the Tory vote and capitalise on widespread unease about Tony Blair's decision to occupy Iraq. Both constituencies have large Asian and black populations who have expressed disaffection with the Iraq war.

Party strategists are hoping to repeat their success in Brent East where the Liberal Democrats won a safe seat from Labour last year and drove the Tories into third.

But the Tories are hoping to defend their position and Michael Howard, in confidential e-mails sent to Tory MPs and party candidates, has ordered them to spend at least 10 hours campaigning in Leicester South.

The Conservatives have already established an election HQ and yesterday the Tory leader visited the Leicester constituency in a bid to drum up support for their candidate Chris Heaton-Harris.

"Chris knows the area well and the real issues facing voters here. He is straight talking and hard working. Chris is the right man at the right time," said Mr Howard.

The by-elections are expected to be held towards the end of July, but a Labour spokesman would not be drawn yesterday on the timing.

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