Lib Dems stun Blair by taking Brent  

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Indy Politics

The Liberal Democrats celebrated a stunning victory early today after demolishing a 13,000 Labour majority to win the Brent East by-election.

In a humiliating defeat for the Blair Government in a formerly safe seat, the Liberal Democrat Sarah Teather won 8,158 votes to give her a 1,118 vote advantage over Labour's Robert Evans on 7,040.

The Tory Uma Fernandes, helpless in the face of the surge, was reduced to third place with 3,368 votes. Turnout was a higher than expected 36.4 per cent.

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: "This isn't just a big boost for the Liberal Democrats. It's a big boost for British politics. We've shown there's no such thing as a no-go area for the Liberal Democrats."

The result - the first seat lost by Labour in a by-election for 15 years - will ring alarm bells in Downing Street and sets the scene for a jittery Labour conference later this month.

The party won the constituency - which until 2001 was held by Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London - with 63 per cent of the vote at the general election but saw its support crumble amid disquiet over its record on public services and opposition to the war in Iraq.

In the first important test of public opinion since Dr David Kelly's death, the issue of trust in Tony Blair and the Government haunted Labour. Senior cabinet ministers and dozens of MPs were drafted into the north-west London constit-uency in an attempt to shore up the vote and Mr Livingstone was even called in to rally his former constituents to the party that expelled him.

But with days to go before polling, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, admitted the Liberal Democrats had drawn neck and neck with Labour.

Mr Evans, an MEP, had been defending a 13,047 majority won in 2001 in Brent East by Paul Daisley, whose death in June from cancer caused the by-election. The Conservatives were runners-up then with 5,278 votes and the Liberal Democrats third with 3,065, or just over 10 per cent of the vote.

But party canvassers encountered hostility to the Government's record on schools and health and discovered that fear of crime was a recurring theme. The Iraq war a constant theme in a constituency with a substantial Muslim vote.

The Liberal Democrats, whose annual conference begins on Sunday, cashed in on the disillusionment with stunning success despite having a minimal presence in Brent previously. They flooded the area with activists and MPs and Mr Kennedy made repeated visits.

The Conservatives were putting a brave face on the result, but it was a bitter blow to Iain Duncan Smith, who this week renewed his attempts to rebrand the Tories as a "caring party". Ms Fernandes, a community nurse, was the only candidate from the three main parties who lived in the constituency, but betrayed her fears about the impending Tory rout in a newspaper interview, conceding that she had little hope of victory.

Theresa May, the Conservative Party chairman, said: "This is not natural Tory territory. The real story ... is people wanting to give a message to the Labour Party that they don't trust them."

The field of 16 candidates also included the self-styled comedy terrorist Aaron Barschak, who won 37 votes, and Kelly McBride, protesting over retention in the Army of two soldiers who shot dead her brother in Belfast in 1992. She received 189 votes.

Nick Raynsford, the Local Government minister, denied that Mr Blair, who had barely featured in Labour election literature, had become a liability to the party. "He will carry on as Prime Minister. He has a huge contribution to make," he told the BBC.

"And a large number of people in the country whatever their current unhappiness - and there have been unhappinesses in the last few weeks - recognise [that]."

Stephen Twigg, an Education minister, said the party would have to learn from Brent. "I'm not denying that a big swing away from us is not good news for us but it is certainly not good news for the Conservative Party either. They will have to have their own inquest about this election as well."

He added: "The Lib Dems and before them the SDP have a history of winning by-elections and then on the next vote losing the seat. I think that the Lib Dems are fooling themselves if they read great significance into this result."

* Labour beat off a challenge from the British National Party to win a seat on Stoke-on-Trent City Council in a by-election. Paul Sutton won at Abbey Green, with 842 votes compared with the BNP's 782.

THE RESULT

Sarah Teather (Lib Dem) 8,158,

Robert Evans (Lab) 7,040,

Uma Fernandes (C) 3,368,

Noel Lynch (Green) 638,

Harold Immanuel (Ind Lab) 188, Iris Cremer (Soc Lab) 111, Brian Butterworth (Soc Allnce) 361, Alan Howling Lord Hope (Monster Raving Loony) 59 , Brian Hall (UK Ind) 140, Khidori Fawzi Ibrahim (Public Services Not War) 219 , Rainbow George Weiss (WW.XAT.ORG) 11, Kelly McBride (Ind) 189, Winston McKenzie (Ind) 197, Neil Walsh (Ind) 101, Aaron Barschak 37

2001 result: Lab 18,325; C 5,278; Lib Dem 3,065; Turnout 49.9%

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