Blair punished for Iraq war as councils fall to Conservatives

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Tony Blair suffered a severe setback early today as Labour was hit by a series of defeats in the local authority elections.

Tony Blair suffered a severe setback early today as Labour was hit by a series of defeats in the local authority elections.

The first results from the "Super Thursday" elections suggested Labour was heading for its worst performance since Mr Blair became party leader 10 years ago. Labour suffered a crushing defeat in Trafford and also lost Swindon and Tamworth as the Tories regained power in areas which are seen as weathervanes for the general election. Labour also lost its overall majority in Burnley.

A BBC survey showed Labour on course for its poorest showing in town hall elections in recent times. Its share of the vote dropped five points since last year's local elections, while both the Tories and Liberal Democrats were up three points. If the pattern is repeated when another 73 local authorities count their votes today, the results would push Labour into third place and provoke another bout of speculation about Mr Blair's future and demands for him to stand down before the general election.

As the polls closed last night, Mr Blair, speaking at the end of the G8 summit in the United States, said that Iraq had "cast a shadow" over the local and European elections. "In the end you have to face decisions which you think are right and you have to see them through.''

A new opinion poll showed he would lose his huge overall majority if a general election were held now and that Britain would have a hung Parliament. The YouGov survey of 6,000 people for Sky News found that the Tories would get 36 per cent of the votes, Labour 32, the Liberal Democrats 18, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) seven and other parties seven.

These figures would wipe out the 165-strong majority Mr Blair won at the previous election. Labour would win 327 seats (down 86), the Tories 257 (up 91), the Liberal Democrats 46 (down six) and other parties 29, while UKIP would not win a single seat. But with Labour as the largest party, Mr Blair would remain Prime Minister.

Mr Blair was convinced Labour's support would revive in time for the general election, after Iraq had been turned "into a better place, as I believe it will". Labour's record would then stand it "in pretty good stead". He added that the Tories and Liberal Democrats had not presented any policies that gave him concern during the recent campaign. Mr Blair said he would tell the Parliamentary Labour Party's meeting on Monday: "It is important that we see through difficult decisions necessary to make our country strong and make the world a safer and more secure place. We have to stick to our decisions."

Labour officials predicted "very poor" results. One Labour source said: "There is a backlash over Iraq. It is not confined to Muslims and professional workers inside the M25. It is hurting us among working and middle-class people, too."

The Liberal Democrats gained control in Pendle. Their leader Charles Kennedy said last night: "The early signs for us are extremely encouraging."

But there was some welcome relief for Labour when two opinion polls suggested last night that Ken Livingstone was on course for victory in the London Mayoral election, the result of which will be announced tonight. That would provide a crumb of comfort for Mr Blair, vindicating Labour's decision to readmit him to the party in an attempt to head off a humiliating defeat in the capital, where Mr Livingstone won as an independent four years ago.

Labour is hoping some of the pressure on Mr Blair will be relieved on Sunday, when results to the European Parliament are announced. It hopes that UKIP will eat into the Conservative vote, giving a headache to Michael Howard and putting a question mark over the Tories' ability to run Labour close at the general election.

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