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Friday, 24 November, 2000, 01:51 GMT
By-election relief for Blair
Tony Blair in upbeat mood
The results may point Tony Blair towards overall voting intentions
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

Tony Blair will be breathing a huge sigh of relief after holding all four seats in the "Super Thursday" by-elections.

The prime minister has been fighting back after a disastrous summer which saw his popularity slumping in the wake of the fuel and pension protests.

And the by-elections were always going to give him the clearest possible sign of how voters believe his government is performing.

They also had the potential to decide on the date of the next general election, pencilled in for 3 May 2001.

Mr Blair was desperate to hang on to these Labour strongholds and put his party on course for an historic second election victory next May.

Still on course

A single loss would have been disastrous for him, but he was also eager to see off any substantial Tory challenge.

And he will be content, if not delighted, with the results from the polls which suggested he is still heading for that second general election win, albeit with a vastly reduced majority.

The evening was not all good news for Labour, however. Once again turnout was low - at under 30% in England and slightly higher in Scotland - with suggestions that many Labour voters simply failed to come out to support their candidates.

It followed the pattern of previous local council, European and by elections which also saw low turnouts.

Labour spokesmen immediately insisted this was either because of bad weather or because traditional Labour supporters were happy with the government's record and did not feel they needed to vote.

Disillusionment cited

Others, however, claim it is yet another sign of the degree of disillusion at the government amongst so-called heartland voters.

They will also point to the fact that the left-wing Lancashire Socialist Alliance did well in Preston, suggesting some disheartened Labour voters had turned to them as an alternative.

The party's share of the vote in the polls was also substantially down and the opposition parties all gained at Labour's expense.

The voters' verdict appears to be that they are not delighted at Labour's performance, but are still not ready to back William Hague.

But it could have been much worse for Mr Blair. Earlier in the summer, he hit his all-time low with serious signs of disappointment at the government's record amongst traditional supporters.

The prime minister was accused of being out of touch and arrogant and was then badly battered by the fuel and pensions protests.

Back in the lead

Mr Hague also made significant advances, scoring points on issues like pensions and law and order.

But, after a powerful party conference performance, Mr Blair started turning the tide and is back in the lead in the opinion polls.

The poll results will be disappointing for Mr Hague who would dearly loved to have seen greater gains for his candidates.

He has been making ground over the past few months but it appears his campaigns on Europe and fuel tax have failed to ignite a full-scale revival.

The Tories did increase their share of the vote but their performance fell well short of the sort of breakthrough Mr Hague needs to show he can put up a real fight at the next general election.

And, thanks to these results, that election looks even more likely to be on 3 May next year.

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