Blair edges towards victory

LABOUR fears that the Iraq War would cost them tens of thousands of votes in the General Election came true overnight with large swings to the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives heading for more than 200 seats.

By Graham Dines

LABOUR fears that the Iraq War would cost them tens of thousands of votes in the General Election came true overnight with large swings to the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives heading for more than 200 seats.

A joint BBC-ITV News exit poll predicted the Prime Minister's lead over all other parties would be slashed from 161 to 66.

Early returns from the North of England and Scotland showed Labour's vote slipping by up to 7%, although four Cabinet ministers had won their seats by 1.15 am.


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Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (Blackburn), Chancellor Gordon Brown (Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath), Pensions and Works Secretary Alan Johnson (Hull East & Hessle) and Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott were all re-elected.

The Conservatives made their first gain of the day when they took back Putney, south west London, with Justine Greening overturning a Labour majority of 2,771 with a 6.46% swing.

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This was followed by Ilford North, which was won by Lee Scott who contested Waveney in 2001, and Peterborough, the first seat to be declared in East Anglia. Minutes later, they gained Newbury from the Liberal Democrats.

The TV exit poll estimated the state of the main parties as Labour with 365 MPs, the Conservatives with 209 and the Liberal Democrats on 53. When the election was called, Labour had 409 MPs, the Tories 164 and the Lib Dems 55.

Before the 7% swing to the Tories in Peterborough was known, senior Labour figures hailed the fact that for the first time the party would enjoy three successive periods in office.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said as he celebrated his own re-election in Hull East: "We clearly will be the Government. It's the third term in government. The electorate have given the endorsement, we can get on with that work."'

Labour's election co-ordinator Alan Milburn – who held his County Durham seat of Darlington – said: "There's a health warning on any exit poll, but if this exit poll is right, then Labour would have secured a third term in government for the first time in our party's history.

"Tony Blair would be only the second Prime Minister in history to win three general elections in a row with a mandate and a majority for a New Labour programme of government."

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon acknowledged Iraq had been an issue in the campaign, but insisted it was "nothing like"' as significant as the economy and public services.

Tory co-chairman Liam Fox said: "There is only one poll that matters and that is the one when the real ballot papers are counted. But if this prediction were true, it is clear that the public want to cut Tony Blair down to size and make him more accountable."

Liberal Democrat deputy leader Sir Menzies Campbell, re-elected in Fife North East, said results in marginal seats around the country could contradict the exit poll findings.

"Let's wait until the votes are counted. Our own people are telling us that in the target seats we have been going like a bomb and there's a great deal of confidence.

"I think there is going to be a great deal of regional variation throughout the United Kingdom and that may be expressed in results which appear, on the face of it, to be contradictory of this exit poll.'"

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