February 10, 2006

Scottish poll rout piles pressure on Blair

By Madeline Chambers

LONDON (Reuters) - A shock defeat for Tony Blair's Labor
Party in a Scottish vote threatens to overshadow a party
conference and hit morale before May's local elections, where a
poor showing could hasten the prime minister's departure.

In a huge 16 percent swing, voters ousted Labor from the
east Scottish constituency of Dunfermline and West Fife and
handed the parliamentary seat to the Liberal Democrats,
Britain's third biggest party.

The drubbing comes at a very difficult time for Blair who
is fighting a rebellion from party members opposed to his
planned public sector reforms, especially for schools.

The result was also a blow for Finance Minister Gordon
Brown, credited with deft management of the country's economy
since 1997 when Labor took power and widely regarded as Blair's
likely successor. Brown lives in the constituency and fought
hard in the campaign.

"It was a very bad result for us, let's make no bones about
it," cabinet minister Alistair Darling told BBC radio.

"This was a safe seat, we should not have lost it."

Blair, who has said he will stand aside before the next
national election, due by 2010, has already been weakened by
three parliamentary defeats since November.

His parliamentary majority was more than halved in last
May's national election and he is seen by some as a lame duck.


The result will send shockwaves through Labor, said Michael
Thrasher, politics professor at Plymouth University.

"It really is sending a real message to the Labor
leadership, and Gordon Brown in particular will be greatly
aggrieved," he told Sky TV.

The Liberal Democrats overcame weeks of bad headlines and
scandals which have sparked a leadership contest to take the
seat, left vacant by the death of a Labor lawmaker.

Although Darling tried to blame local issues for the vote,
analysts say the result could signal the start of an erosion of
Labor's local power base which may hurt its national standing.

Blair will later seek to soothe the party faithful at
Labor's annual spring gathering, this year in Blackpool.

He will need grassroots support in the next few months.

A weak showing in May's local elections coupled with more
parliamentary defeats, especially on flagship policies such as
reforms to schools and welfare benefits, could spark calls from
within the party for him to go sooner rather than later.

Most commentators think he intends to stay until next year,
by which time he will have been prime minister for a decade.

One comfort for Labor may be that a reinvigorated
opposition Conservative Party under new leader David Cameron,
who campaigned in the Scottish constituency, also saw its share
of the vote fall.