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Last Updated: Friday, 6 May, 2005, 12:45 GMT 13:45 UK
Muted victory for Blair
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

Tony Blair has won his longed-for third election victory and secured his place in history.

But the prime minister must know that, for the first time, it was despite, rather than because of him.

The victory came on the back of the smallest winning share of the vote recorded.

And with a vastly reduced majority and both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats making significant advances at Labour's cost, the celebrations in Downing Street will be short.

All eyes will now focus on the prime minister's future - and what many believe is the near-inevitability of a handover to Gordon Brown well before the end of this third term.

With Michael Howard's surprise announcement he will stand down once his party has decided how to elect a new leader, the next election campaign will now be led by two new , and they will hope, fresh faces.

The sight of Stephen Twigg suffering role reversal and losing the seat he so sensationally took from Michael Portillo in 1997 and fellow minister Melanie Johnson falling will have pained the prime minister.

But perhaps the moment that will have rocked him the most will have been when Respect's George Galloway ousted Oona King after a campaign based almost entirely on anti-war sentiments.

Michael Howard

Iraq dogged the prime minister throughout the campaign and many in Labour believe only a change in leader can draw a line under this episode.

The prime minister himself acknowledged the effect the war had had on his campaign during his victory speech.

He also echoed sentiments expressed by Gordon Brown earlier when he spoke about the need to listen to people's concerns.

Meanwhile, both Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy had reason to be happy with their results.

Happy enough

The Tories may not have made a breakthrough of the size many were dreaming of.

Michael Howard was happy enough with his showing to declare his party had taken a significant step towards recovery.

But that did not stop him announcing his intention to stand down - although he has probably spared his party the difficulties which followed William Hague's instant departure in 2001.

Charles Kennedy

Mr Kennedy will be delighted with his showing and the likelihood of ending up with more Commons seats than at any time for his party since Lloyd George.

He will see the result as a solid staging post towards his ambition to make the Liberal Democrats the real opposition, in time for the next general election.

Smoke cleared

There was a time, of course, when a majority of over 60 would have been seen as a major success for Labour, or even the Tories at their prime.

But there will be no getting away from the fact that Mr Blair will now have a far more difficult time than before in getting his programme through Parliament.

That will only add to the speculation over his leadership.

And there must be doubts about him remaining in Downing Street for the full term, as he has insisted he will do.

As soon as the smoke has cleared from this election battle, that is the story most likely to now dominate politics.

In the mean time, Mr Blair will be back to business in Downing Street - shaping a new Cabinet.



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