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Last Updated: Friday, 19 September, 2003, 02:36 GMT 03:36 UK
Blair's by-election gloom

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Charles Kennedy's wildest dreams came true on Friday morning as Tony Blair and Iain Duncan Smith shared in election night gloom.

Disillusioned Labour voters in the Brent East by-election went to the polls to deliver their verdict on the war on Iraq, government trustworthiness and, most pointedly, Tony Blair's leadership.

Tony Blair in Commons
The result is bleak for Tony Blair
And the message could not have been clearer, or more sensational.

They turned their backs on Labour in their thousands, rejected the Tories and instead handed the Liberal Democrats another of their occasional historic victories with a huge swing.

After his own personal annus horribilis, the prime minister must have been braced for a drubbing.

But even in his gloomiest moments he probably tried to reassure himself that this seat was so rock-solid Labour he could not lose it.

Time and again during the campaign, the issues of trust and the backlash at the war and the way the prime minister led Britain into it emerged as key issues.

Disastrous consequences

And this result may just mark the point at which Labour backbenchers start asking searching questions about the party and their leader's strategy.

The Labour benches are already growing more rebellious by the day as Mr Blair attempts to force through controversial policies including foundation hospitals and tuition fees.

The Lib Dems may well be on the verge of something big
And Labour MPs fear unless the evaporation of trust in the government can be turned around pretty quickly, it will have disastrous consequences for them in the next general election.

Thanks to Mr Blair's presidential style of leadership, there is only one man who can be blamed for that - and he is the one who will have to carry the can.

Iain Duncan Smith was also delivered a fresh body blow with his Tory candidate being relegated to third place in this seat.

The Tories will have suffered from their own support for the war on Iraq.

But the poll will also be seen by critics as further evidence that Mr Duncan Smith simply has not got the stuff required to put the party back in contention at the next general election.

It could even be that talk of leadership challenges now resurface.

Votes being counted in by-election
Labour will have to work hard to win back voters
Mr Duncan Smith will argue that this was never going to be fruitful territory for his party and that it was always likely to be a battle between the left of centre parties.

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, were understandably ecstatic, believing this result was another sign that they may genuinely be on the road to becoming the main challengers to Labour at the general election.

Mr Kennedy, who poured huge resources into this campaign, has successfully managed to capitalise on the other two parties' woes.
Lib Dem's triumph is just the latest in a long history of by-election upsets for parties in power

But he can also feel satisfied that his leadership style, notably his unbending opposition to the war, struck a real chord with large numbers of voters.

It may be, of course, that in a few months, let alone a couple of years, all this excitement will be forgotten.

History is littered with examples of by-election sensations which have failed to develop into anything significant.

But there does seem to be a trend emerging in local and Euro elections to suggest that the Lib Dems may well be on the verge of something big.

As always, however, all of this has to be taken with a large health warning.

The next general election is still a couple of years away and that is plenty of time for Labour and the Tories to turn the tide.

But the voters of Brent East have graphically demonstrated precisely what the parties need to do to alter the electoral landscape.


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