Labor edged painfully into an unprecedented third term in power early Friday as a sharper than expected swing against the government left Tony Blair in office, but without the authoritative electoral mandate he had sought.
Though television exit polls suggested that Blair would match Margaret Thatcher's triple election record, Labor's huge majorities of 179 and 165 at the last two elections looked set to fall, to between 60 and 80 seats on estimates at 4 a.m. Downing Street had hoped for more than 80, and both Blair and Gordon Brown, safely reelected, stressed the need to listen more carefully to an electorate that, Blair conceded, wanted a smaller government majority.
Speaking in Sedgefield Friday morning the prime minister defended New Labor's achievements -- "we can be very, very proud of what we have done" -- and called it a "huge rebirth of our party." While he invoked "a real sense of enthusiasm for the third-term agenda," Brown's succession may now come sooner than later.
As a clutch of seats fell to Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in London -- including Putney, Hornsey and Wimbledon -- and the wider southeast, senior Labor officials admitted that the region's results would be "quite bad," the result of a pincer movement among voters disaffected by the Iraq war and immigration.
But the Lib Dems' hopes of a "decapitation strategy" failed to unseat Oliver Letwin, David Davis or Theresa May. Instead Charles Kennedy's big successes of the night turned out to be at Labor, not Tory, expense, much as Blair feared. For Michael Howard, a better than expected result marks a personal vindication and certain reconfirmation as party leader.
Two dramatic blows to Blair's authority were delivered by ex-Labor critics from the left. Peter Law easily defeated the Blairite Maggie Jones in the historic Welsh heartland seat of Blaenau Gwent previously held by Nye Bevan and Michael Foot.
"This is what happens when you don't listen to people," said Law shortly before George Galloway, Blair's most relentless antiwar critic, beat loyalist Oona King in the bitter contest for Bethnal Green and Bow in east London. The NHS protester, Richard Taylor, also held Wyre Forest.
Though the night's idiosyncratic results bore out Labor's hopes of a better performance outside the M25 -- the feared Rover effect did not materialize in West Midlands seats -- Chancellor Brown's position was strengthened as Blair faltered. Looking tired and drawn at the declaration of his result, the prime minister said he was clear that "the British people wanted the return of a Labor government -- but with a reduced majority. We have to respond to that sensibly, wisely and responsibly."
Early Friday morning Conservatives were first to win a seat from Labor, the perennial London marginal of Putney on a 6 percent swing. Others followed, but Labor defied the odds in other seats, including Dover, Watford and Hove. Nationalists had a good night in Scotland, but a bad one in Wales. The micro-parties of left and right, including the BNP, were also picking up disaffected votes.
The Liberal Democrats, determined to make a reality of their "three-party politics" strategy, claimed to be picking up most anti-Labor protest votes in Held-held constituencies. Despite a provisional net gain of six they lost Guildford to the Tories and their 2004 byelection gain in Leicester South back to Labor. Confirmation of the threatened "bloody nose" for Blair -- 52 years old Friday -- raised the prospect that a weakened prime minister will be forced by his own party to hand over the keys of No. 10 to his chancellor sooner than he had planned. The first test of Brown's growing strength will come when the ministerial team is reshuffled Friday.
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw held Blackburn, but only after losing 20 percent of his votes to antiwar challengers. Stephen Twigg, the schools standards minister and the man who beat Michael Portillo at Enfield Southgate in 1997, became the first minister to lose as swings were recorded between 5 percent and 15 percent. Another minister, Melanie Johnson, lost in Welwyn and Hatfield.
Analysts were quick to declare that such a result would give Blair the slenderest share of the poll for a governing party in modern times, despite signs that some women voters turned against Michael Howard. The final polls also indicated that tactical voting was as widespread in 2005 as it was in 2001, despite speculation that it was going out of fashion as 18 years of deepening hostility to the Tories subsided.