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Blair loses key vote as Iraq problems take toll
( 2003-09-19 13:48) (Agencies)

Prime Minister Tony Blair suffered a stinging electoral defeat on Friday at the first popular vote since a British weapons expert took his own life and the government tumbled into crisis over war on Iraq.

The north London seat of Brent East, whose member of parliament Paul Daisley died earlier this year, should have been iron-clad for Blair's Labour Party, which has held it for years.

But in a stunning reverse, the count in the early hours of Friday morning showed victory for Liberal Democrat Sarah Teather. Crucially, Britain's third party opposed the Iraq war.

Daisley won at the 2001 election with 63 percent of the vote and a majority of over 13,000. Teather won a majority of 1,118.

"We are going through a bad patch, no doubt about it," said government minister Nick Raynsford.

Blair had not previously lost a by-election seat held by his party since taking power in 1997.

On the face of it, a marginal reduction in Blair's huge 165-seat parliamentary majority looks inconsequential.

But timing is all. The political damage to Blair will be heavy at a time when opinion polls show most Britons no longer trust him and his annual Labour Party conference looms, with activists angry about a war they opposed.

Government scientist David Kelly slashed his wrist in July after he was exposed as the source of a BBC report accusing the government of hyping the case for war to win over skeptical Britons.

Blair's public trust ratings have since evaporated, with most Britons doubting the case he made for attacking Iraq and many blaming his administration for Kelly's demise.

As voting took place on Thursday, feelings on the ground ran high in the diverse, multi-ethnic constituency.

Mary Farrell, a pensioner, told Reuters: "We voted Labour and we put in Tony Blair and nobody likes what is happening now. We are disgusted and fed up. We want to send him a message and the only way to do that is to vote for someone else."

Bernie Paul, 58, who is unemployed, said he voted for the Liberal Democrats. "I can't stand Blair. He is a puppet to the American President," he said.

Blair, once seen as his party's greatest asset, was barely mentioned by the Labour campaign.

His one consolation was that the main opposition Conservatives finished a poor third.

Pollsters say they should be performing far better to harbor any hopes of forming the next government. The next general election is due by 2006 but expected in 2005.

Liberal Democrat Sarah Teather becomes the youngest member of parliament, aged just 29.

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