LONDON - Britons angry over Iraq have given Prime Minister Tony Blair a drubbing in local elections, relegating his ruling Labour Party to an unprecedented third place.
"It's a bad night for us, but it's not meltdown," Blair's Home Secretary David Blunkett said on Friday. "On Iraq, we are very clear about that -- it has damaged us."
Thursday's local council poll outcome -- likely to be echoed in London mayor results due on Friday night and European Parliament results on Sunday -- will inevitably renew speculation about Blair's leadership.
But analysts still expect him to take Labour to a third general election victory in 2005 despite his humiliation at the polls, the biggest test of public feeling both since the Iraq war and since Blair won a second term in 2001.
With nearly half the results counted by early Friday -- 82 of 166 councils up for grabs -- Labour had lost a net 211 seats, closing in on the overall loss of 400 or more which analysts had projected as a benchmark of seriousness for Blair.
The BBC projected Labour's vote share at just 26 percent, way behind the Conservatives on 38 percent, and also behind Britain's third party, the Liberal Democrats, on 30 percent.
"What you have got is a government that is clearly unpopular but a main opposition party that is not capitalizing," pollster Peter Kellner told Reuters, adding that the Conservatives needed 40 percent to be on course for victory in 2005.
"Blair will not be as shiningly popular as he was in 1997 but I think people will prefer to trust him again."
TIME FOR BROWN?
The Conservatives were in upbeat mood. "It has been Labour's worst electoral performance in living memory and it is the first time that a government has been pushed into third place in mid-term elections," crowed party chairman Liam Fox.
The message of disillusionment will not be lost on Blair and will undoubtedly heighten calls from some quarters for him to give way to his powerful Chancellor of the Excheckr (Finance Minister) Gordon Brown.
Anticipating Friday's results, Blair has in recent weeks insisted he is "up for" a third general election bid.
And this week's unanimous U.N. resolution on Iraq has given him some respite on an issue that has done nothing but damage to him for the last year.
The Conservatives' showing was dented by their backing of Blair over the invasion of Iraq, and a surge by the hitherto marginal UK Independence Party, which advocates EU withdrawal.
The UKIP picked up its first council seats, in the towns of Derby and Hull. "People are absolutely fed up of Europe," said Hull's UKIP councillor John Cornforth.
A poll for the European Parliament said UKIP -- tapping into Britons' historically suspicious and ambivalent view of Europe -- would win up to 12 of 78 British seats when results for that poll are declared on Sunday night.
The far-right British National Party which had hoped to pick up protest votes, was eclipsed by the UKIP, gaining just one seat in the northern town of Burnley but losing another there, on the early results.
Britain's third party, the Liberal Democrats, benefited from its anti-war stance. "Iraq cast a long shadow across these elections," their leader Charles Kennedy said.
Thursday's turnout was around 40 percent.
Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne, Madeline Chambers and Paul Majendie
© Copyright 2004 Reuters Ltd