GB: Il Labour va sotto e Blair chiede scusa per aver trascinato il paese nella guerra in Iraq e il suo partito alla sconfitta
Blair says sorry as Prescott admits Labour got a 'kicking' for Iraq war
Tony Blair's leadership was under renewed pressure last night after Labour slumped to a disastrous third place behind the Tories and Liberal Democrats in the local authority elections.
The Prime Minister apologised to the 548 councillors who lost their seats. Although 84 Labour candidates picked up seats, the party lost control of 13 authorities in Thursday's elections, a result widely blamed on the war in Iraq. But Mr Blair urged his party to "hold our nerve" after the drubbing in the polls and made it clear he did not believe it would affect his plans for the general election next year, or lead to a challenge for his leadership. Asked whether he was still the best person to lead Labour into the general election, Mr Blair said: "It makes me want to see through what we have begun."
The Prime Minister admitted his decision to go to war in Iraq had cost Labour seats across the country. "I understand why people worry about the basis on which we went to war," he said. "Yes, Iraq has been an immensely difficult decision." He added: "I would like to say how sorry I am to the councillors who have lost their seats."
Speaking at the British Embassy in Washington, after Ronald Reagan's funeral, Mr Blair said: "The Liberal Democrats have fought a campaign basically around Iraq. Iraq has been a shadow over our support. We have to understand these decisions arise in Government."
Mr Blair will face a difficult meeting with Labour backbenchers on Monday but he said: "The fact that the Government loses council elections does not really augur much for the general election. I think there are lessons we have got to learn. What has really happened is the Conservative Party have not really broken through."
John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, admitted the party had received "a kicking" and David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, said he was "mortified". They both blamed a backlash over Iraq.
Clare Short, who resigned as a cabinet minister after the Iraq war, renewed her demand for Mr Blair to stand down. She said: "I think that the electorate is sending a message to Tony Blair because the Labour Party seems incapable of correcting him. What we did in Iraq has brought disgrace and dishonour on Britain around the world. As Tony Blair won't change the policy, the only way to make a correction is for him to step aside from the leadership."
Writing in The Independent today, Robin Cook says Mr Blair must promise there "will be no more Iraqs" if he wants to lead Labour into the general election. Ominously, he adds: "The real problem is that in his heart Tony Blair remains convinced that he was right and that he should be ready to do it again. So long as that remains the case, many of the voters who have deserted Labour will not return."
Noting that the Prime Minister did not appear in Labour's election broadcasts, he says: "We cannot fight a general election by keeping the Prime Minister out of the campaign." Christine McCafferty, Labour MP for Calder Valley, said: "If the Prime Minister were to hold his hands up and say 'I got it wrong' and perhaps apologise, then maybe people would be willing to trust again. But if he doesn't do that, then I think many voters will think it is time to have a new leader."
Nick Brown, the former Labour chief whip and a close ally of Gordon Brown, said voters in Newcastle upon Tyne, where Labour lost power for the first time in 30 years, had cited problems with "senior figures in the Government". He said he would discuss with colleagues what Labour should do this weekend, adding: "We have to listen to what people are saying."
But the Chancellor rallied behind Mr Blair in television interviews, predicting he would lead Labour to a third general election victory. "We fight as a team," he said. Mr Brown said the decision to go to war was backed by the Cabinet. On the elections, he said: "We must listen, learn and reflect, and one of the lessons I have already learnt is that we must work even harder as a government."
Senior Labour figures said Mr Blair would survive another "wobble" over his leadership without being plunged into a full-scale crisis. One backbencher summed up the mood as: "A lot of people want him to go but we are not going to knife him."
A BBC projection, based on 400,000 votes cast in key council wards, showed that the Tories won 38 per cent of the votes, the Liberal Democrats 29 per cent and Labour 26 per cent. It is believed to have been the first time the governing party has come third in the local elections.
The Labour losses also included Leeds, Thurrock, Burnley, Bassetlaw, St Helens, Oxford and Ipswich as the Tories gained 263 more council seats and the Liberal Democrats more than 132.
Michael Howard, the Tory leader, said the results gave his party an ideal platform for the general election. "We have to be 11.5 points ahead to win the general election. On last night's results, we were 12 points ahead," he said.
Charles Kennedy hailed the Liberal Democrats' "dramatic advance", saying: "The general election is going to be much more a three-party contest. With us having challenged and seen off the Conservatives, we are now taking the fight to Labour in their heartlands in the North."
But Labour officialsclaimed that the Tories had not done well enough to show they were on course to win the general election expected in May. Labour hopes that a strong showing by the United Kingdom Independence Party will give Mr Howard a bloody nose when the European election results are announced tomorrow night.
For some Labour officials, the council results were at the lower end of their expectations. One said: "A lot of people have taken the opportunity to register a protest vote over Iraq."
* There are two results still to come:
Birmingham, a key authority, will not have its full results until Sunday after an unusual decision to abandon vote-counting in Perry Barr, the final ward.
Walsall - result still pending from one ward because an uncounted ballot box was discovered under a table almost an hour after the result was announced.
THE POLLS AT A GLANCE
Seats gained Seats lost Net seats Councils
Conservative 319 56 +263 +12
Labour 84 548 -464 -8
Lib Dem 242 110 +132 -2
Plaid Cymru 17 43 -26 -2
Green 10 1 +9 -
BNP 7 3 +4 -
UKIP 2 1 +1 -
* Labour became first ruling party pushed into third place in a poll, with an about 26 per cent of the vote.
* With 38 per cent, the Tories gained their biggest lead over Labour since the 1992 election.
* The Liberal Democrats' 29 per cent is likely to fall slightly short of their biggest share of the vote.