Blair's reelection: Pyrrhic victory?

British Prime Minister Tony Blair won a third term Thursday, but his support is now weaker than ever.

Britain may still be America's strongest ally and Europe's healthiest economy, but in the past few days its leader, Tony Blair, has gone from mighty to meek.

In dramatic elections Thursday, he became only the second prime minister in British history to win a third consecutive term in office. Only Conservative Party icon Margaret Thatcher before him had achieved such a feat.

But his feat was instantly dubbed a "joyless victory" as Mr. Blair's Labour Party took just 35 percent of the vote (Michael Howard's Conservatives won 32 percent; Charles Kennedy's Liberal Democrats got 22 percent). And its 161-seat majority in Parliament faded to 67 seats. All told, Labour is now governing with the lowest level of public support in modern British history.

The prime minister slunk back to No. 10 Downing Street promising to "listen and learn" while senior government figures called on him to step down, saying he had become a "liability."

With about 50 rebel members of his party ready to vote down the prime minister's more-controversial proposals, Britain's leader cuts a weak figure at home and his clout on the international stage is bound to diminish.

"From now on, [Blair] is on a leash," says Patrick Dunleavy, a professor of political science and public policy at the London School of Economics. "He will be constrained in anything he says, internationally and domestically."

"His authority is much reduced," says John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled the professor's name.]

With Iraq considered the main reason for the decline in support for Labour, "the climate is such that it would be very very difficult for any British government to commit to another conflict," says Gillian Peele, a political scientist at Oxford University.

"George Bush still has a very close ally but he'll get a lot more cautious support," she adds.

Blair has pledged he will not run for a fourth term. But already polls show that about half the British public would prefer him to step down before the next general elections.

Blair's less cuddly, more intellectual and more traditional left-wing economy chief Gordon Brown is widely seen as Britain's prime minister in waiting. Many would like to see him take the reins as soon as next year. This weekend, British newspapers were already speculating as to when Blair may bow out and what direction a "Brownite" Labour would take Britain.

Such an administration would probably change Britain's economy very little, since Brown is largely responsible for the fact that the average Briton is better off today than when Labour came to power eight years ago. Mr. Brown would continue many of the policies the two leaders have drawn up together, including their recent campaign to make poverty reduction in Africa a global priority. He would increase his efforts to win US support for radical new policies to reduce third-world debt.

Both Blair and Brown are firm supporters of Europe and, if France gives the green light at the end of May, they would push for Britain to approve the new European Union constitution in its referendum due to take place next year.

Brown would build stronger ties with Europe, but, as Peele says, if it came to taking sides on a matter like Iraq, he is "not about to jump into the arms of the French and the Germans."

Blair and Bush, both of whom are deeply religious, forged a unique personal connection - a bond experts say Brown, as prime minister, would not be able to duplicate.

"I can't see him getting on terribly well with Bush," says Professor Peele. "But the strangest bedfellows come together. I am sure Brown would make sure he found a way to make it work."

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