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Saturday, 6 May, 2000, 19:20 GMT 20:20 UK
Inquest opens on Labour's Black Friday

To Tony Blair's dismay, Ken Livingstone is London mayor
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

Labour bosses are spending a weekend of soul searching after their "Black Friday" triple election disaster.

As London Mayor Elect Ken Livingstone started putting together his cabinet and both William Hague and Charles Kennedy celebrated major victories, Tony Blair was left to examine the wreckage of Labour's election hopes.

He was forced to contemplate a future with "Red Ken" Livingstone running the capital and regularly clashing with him over ideology, as well as the Conservatives back on the march in local town halls.

He was also seeking answers to why Labour was so roundly humiliated in the Romsey by-election and even failed to win an expected majority in the new Greater London Assembly, which had been his personal brainchild.

Bloodless' inquest

His first task was to reassure Mr Livingstone by phone that - while he has not changed his political objections to him - he is prepared to work with him for the good of London.

His second job was to order a "bloodless" inquest into exactly what went so disastrously wrong for Labour and what it bodes for the future.

Lastly, he needed to map out a strategy to reassure his party that this is not the start of a long slide towards general election defeat.

Many of the answers to the questions buzzing around Labour chiefs' heads are already clear and have been spelt out to the prime minister by backbenchers including ex-minister Peter Kilfoyle and frontbencher Peter Hain.

Tony Blair: Tight-lipped priase
They had warned him time and again that he was in danger of alienating droves of core Labour supporters with his obsession with keeping Middle England on board the New Labour experiment.

And, sure enough, Labour lost traditional councils like Oldham, Bradford, Burnley and even Peter Mandelson's Hartlepool.

Danger of complacency

The prime minister's task now is to re-engage with those voters, many of whom simply stayed at home during the polls, and start delivering on his 1997 election promises.

That could see him delaying the date of the next general election to the autumn of next year or even beyond to let his standing improve.

Alternatively, he may consider that things can only get worse and the sooner he goes to the country the better.

Either way, his "steady as she goes" message in the aftermath of his triple catastrophe will not go down well with those urging him to wake up. It smacks of complacency and, as some have suggested, an inability to admit he can ever get things wrong.

William Hague: Suggests things are on the up for the Tories
Of course, despite the recent results there is little doubt that, if there were a general election tomorrow, he would still comfortably win it. Much of that is due to the fact that, as the Romsey result indicated, William Hague is still not regarded as a potential prime minister.

The Tories are seen as acceptable administrations in local town halls - particularly if electing them serves to slap Mr Blair in the face - but not as a national government.

It would be highly dangerous, however, for the prime minister to rely on the Tories and Mr Hague continuing to be no-hopers - and general elections have a nasty habit of seeing people return to old loyalties and commanding poll leads evaporate within days.

Mixed outcome for Hague

Meanwhile, the other party leaders were also poking around in the entrails of the election results for portents of the future.

Mr Hague had a mixed outcome with an extremely good result in the local councils where they had been virtually wiped out four years ago.

However, the gains still only put the party back to its pre-1996 showing and there is clearly still a long way to go to claim they are on course for general election-winning territory.

And the Romsey result took the shine off the local council performance by suggesting there is still a powerful anti-Tory vote at work.

But Mr Hague has certainly done more than enough to claim that the party has started the fightback and to suggest that, between now and the next general election, things can only improve.

Calls for his replacement as leader will win little support amongst backbenchers and he seems more secure than ever in his post.

Plenty to please Lib Dems

Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy also has plenty to be pleased about. He saw his party storm to a sensational victory in Romsey of the sort they are famous for pulling off from time to time.

He also fared far better in the local polls than he had been expecting, partly as a result of the collapse of Labour's fortunes.

This all argues for him to continue his policy of abandoning his party's unofficial alliance with the Labour government which, to all intents and purpose, is now dead.

He needs to portray the Lib Dems as a competent third party, rather than a reflection of Labour, if he is to maximise his general election support amongst both disillusioned Tory and Labour voters.

Meanwhile, as the fallout from the London poll continues to grip Westminster, all eyes will be on Ken Livingstone's first mayoral cabinet, which looks likely to include Green group leader Darren Johnson and even Frank Dobson's running mate, Trevor Phillips.

And there will be much interest in what now happens to the other defeated London mayoral candidates such as Frank Dobson and Steve Norris. Mr Livingstone has said he wanted to offer them jobs, but few believe they will be prepared to accept anything.

But London is now entering uncharted territory and anything must be possible.

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See also:

06 May 00 | UK Politics
Mayor Ken chooses team
05 May 00 | UK Politics
Livingstone triumphs in London
05 May 00 | London Mayor
Tories and Labour tie GLA count
04 May 00 | Local elections
Hague savours local victories
05 May 00 | UK Politics
Romsey defeat mars Tories' night
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