Blair Wins Historic Victory in British Election

Published June 8th, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

British Prime Minister Tony Blair steered his Labor Party to a landslide general election victory Friday, heralding an historic second term in government, but the lowest turnout since World War I dampened the victory mood. 

William Hague promptly announced his resignation as Conservative leader, taking responsibility for a disastrous result in which his party failed to make the slightest dent in Labor’s crushing majority. 

Despite the lowest turnout since 1918, Blair engineered a virtual re-run of his party's 1997 landslide over a devastated Conservative Party, left with a virtually unchanged 165 seats. 

Labor’s slightly reduced tally of 413, down six seats on 1997, favored the third placed Liberal Democrats, who improved from 47 to a projected 53 seats. 

Blair's thumping majority increases the chances of Britain's early entry into the single European currency and a mandate to initiate his promised reform of public services. 

The result left the Conservatives in the same position they found themselves after the last election, adrift, facing a huge Labor majority in parliament, and searching for an energetic new leader to appeal to a bored electorate. 

The Tories' campaign was heavily criticized for focusing too much on opposition to Britain joining the single currency. 

Turnout was estimated to be 59.2 percent, some 11 percent down on 1997 -- the biggest fall-off in voter participation in British electoral history. 

The sheer scale of Blair's eclipse of the Tories meant he achieved what previous Labor prime ministers had failed to do, secure a second full successive term in office. 

"For 100 years we've been in government for short periods of time but never won a full second term of office. Now we have," he told supporters in London, before visiting Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. 

"But we have done so because at long last in this country we've united the politics of ambition for yourself and your family, and compassion, decency and obligation to others less fortunate than yourselves. 

"That marriage of head and heart is what this party is all about." 

Convention requires the leader of the largest party to ask the queen's permission to form a new government. A cabinet reshuffle was expected later Friday. 

Earlier, outside Number 10 Downing Street, Blair said voters had endorsed his pledges of strong economic management, investment in public services, and fighting social exclusion and poverty. 

But as he faced a second term, the 48-year-old prime minister struck a back-to-work tone and urged his supporters not to show complacency. 

"The one thing we have to remember is that now is the time when the people of this country want us to serve them, and want us to do the things we promised to do." 

"Our mandate is to carry on the work that we started." 

Blair said Labor had won the vote of the British people "because we had the courage to change ourselves." 

It was a theme unwittingly echoed by Hague, who sparked a scramble for the Tory leadership when he fell on his sword hours later. 

"It is vital for leaders to listen and parties to change," the 40-year-old Tory leader said in a dramatic resignation statement outside Conservative Party headquarters in London. 

"I believe it is vital the party be given the chance to choose a leader who can build on my work, but also take new initiatives and hopefully command a larger personal following in the country." 

The bookmakers' clear favorite to succeed him is Michael Portillo, the party's finance spokesman whose Eurosceptic views broadly echo those of the outgoing leader. 

Hague's resignation drove sterling lower on foreign exchange markets -- to 1.3775 against the dollar -- because dealers now feel British entry into the euro-zone to be more likely than ever before. The currency had stumbled to a 15-year low on Thursday. 

Portillo, who was among those reported to have pressed his leader to stay on, warned Labor: "Don't regard today's result, with its low turnout, as an endorsement of your policy of high taxation and failure to deliver better public services." 

Though buoyed by his party's showing, the fact that two in five people entitled to vote had not bothered was described as "shocking" by Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy. 

"It is a very discouraging day for all those who care about politics and democracy," he added -- LONDON (AFP) 

© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

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