Blair faces quit call in backbench backlash

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Three Labour MPs called on Tony Blair to stand down as Prime Minister yesterday after the party lost the safe seat of Leicester South in Thursday's by-election and came within a whisker of a humiliating defeat in Birmingham Hodge Hill.

Three Labour MPs called on Tony Blair to stand down as Prime Minister yesterday after the party lost the safe seat of Leicester South in Thursday's by-election and came within a whisker of a humiliating defeat in Birmingham Hodge Hill.

Mr Blair, who clocks up 10 years as Labour leader next Wednesday, took comfort from the Tories' embarrassing third place in both contests, and allies insisted he would lead the party into the next general election. But one aide conceded: "We have suffered some damage; it's been an uncomfortable week."

Geraldine Smith, MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale, said the "disastrous" by-election results showed that the Prime Minister had forfeited the trust of the electorate and predicted that public confidence would not be regained while he remained in Downing Street.

She said Mr Blair had been "fatally damaged" by the Butler report into the pre-war intelligence on Iraq's weapons, which had shown people were "misled out of political expediency".

Ms Smith added: "I think the time has come when Tony Blair's friends need to advise him to go with honour and dignity at a time of his choosing. The alternative is going to be to wait until his enemies drag him down, or indeed the British people make that decision for him."

Glenda Jackson, the former transport minister, said the poor by-election performances provided fresh evidence that the Prime Minister remained an electoral liability to the party.

"Blair should go and go now," she said. "Clearly the issue was Iraq. Far from drawing a line under it, everything the Government does and the Prime Minister says exacerbates it."

Robert Marshall-Andrews, the MP for Medway, said: "We were absolutely caned in both by-elections and were within a few hundred votes of losing both - it was a disastrous result. We need a new leader. It would make a great difference. It would massively improve our chances and immensely enhance the reputation of politics if he were to take responsibility for his actions and resign."

In Leicester South, Parmjit Singh Gill overturned a Labour majority of 13,243 to become the Liberal Democrats' first ethnic minority MP with a swing of 21 per cent. Charles Kennedy's party achieved an even bigger swing of 27 per cent in Birmingham Hodge Hill, but Labour's Liam Byrne scraped home with a majority of just 460.

A jubilant Mr Kennedy said: "Iraq has become for Labour what sleaze was for the Tories under John Major."

Declaring that the Tory leader Michael Howard's "honeymoon period" was over, Mr Kennedy said: "This is a hugely significant victory. We have a Labour Government becoming more and more unpopular, but people are not swinging to the Conservatives. They are coming to the Liberal Democrats. I notice the Labour Party are trying to peddle the line that this is a flash in the pan. How many flashes do you have to see?"

Meanwhile, there was gloom in Tory ranks. One frontbencher said: "There will be those who say this doesn't have a follow-through at the general election, but it does re-emphasise that we're not making a breakthrough yet. It shows the need for us to put forward more distinctive policies." But he added: "There's no question mark over Michael Howard at all."

Liam Fox, the Tories' co-chairman, said: "This is not our natural territory. It would have been nice to do better, but the real story here is that these are two of Labour's biggest drops in their vote since the Second World War. People are voting for the party that gives Labour the biggest bloody nose. It has lost the trust of the voters."

John Reid, the Health Secretary, said a "score draw" in the two contests was satisfactory for Labour. He conceded that the normal protest vote against the party in power had been magnified by the Iraq factor.

"To win one as well as lose one and to see the other party that would claim to be an alternative government going backwards before our eyes means that we are not displeased with last night's result," he said.

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