PM greeted with silence as delegates digest result

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There were early signs yesterday that some Labour Party activists believed the debacle of Dunfermline provided the best case yet for an early handover of power from Tony Blair to the presumed future leader Gordon Brown.

As spring conference delegates digested the scale of the defeat, Barbara Hyldon-King, a Grimsby councillor, said: "It sends a message to Mr Blair to move on."

A London activist added: "It's all still about Tony Blair - people think he lied over Iraq and if they can't trust him over that, what can they trust him on? He leads the Government, he sets the policies."

One minister admitted: "We thought we had done well enough to win, but the local factors did for us. There's always a protest vote for other parties in by-elections, but the issue we need to address is why did so many of our supporters stay at home on the day?"

Others said that the recipe for re-engaging the voters was more complicated. "We need to project a new sense of vision. I just hope Gordon can do that," said one activist.

One seminar to be held today will consider ways of "targeting the right voters". In the wake of Mr Blair's growing personal unpopularity, finding ways of targeting any voters at all might be a good idea.

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