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Blair's Super Thursday test

By Robin Oakley
CNN European Political Editor

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- For British Prime Minister Tony Blair, it was Super Thursday.

Britain's voters had the chance to participate in elections for the European Parliament and local councils. And those who live in the capital could vote for London's mayor.

It is the biggest test of opinion before the next general election. And it could scarcely come at a worse time for Blair.

Analysts say few people vote in European or local government elections on local or European issues. Instead the ballots become a popularity test for the national government.

With chaos in Iraq and no weapons of mass destruction found, Blair's poll ratings have tumbled -- and some opponents have tried to make the elections a referendum on Iraq.

"Many people say they feel let down about the reasons why Britain went to war, they feel they weren't told the whole truth about it," says Chris Rennard, chief executive of the Liberal Democrats.

They insist Blair is now a liability to his party.

"A few years ago every Labour candidate had pictures of Tony Blair and messages from Tony Blair all over their literature. Now Tony Blair is completely absent from Labour Party literature," Rennard says.

It's hard, though, for Blair's main opponents -- the Conservatives, now led by Michael Howard -- to focus on Iraq. They too backed the war.

So the Conservatives are focusing on Europe, claiming to be the sensible center ground between a Labour government too ready to make concession to Europe and the advancing United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which wants Britain to quit the European Union.

"People should not be voting for a party that is too extreme, either UKIP saying 'Let us pull out' or the Labour Party and the Lib Dems saying 'Let us go for further integration,'" says Charles Hendry, deputy chairman of the Conservatives.

Labour, happy not to talk Iraq, prefers to tackle that argument.

"The Conservative Party agenda is now renegotiation on the route to withdrawal from Europe, by contrast with a Labour agenda for increased trade, prosperity and opportunity across the EU," says Douglas Alexander, Labour's Cabinet Office minister.

Blair's best hope of rescuing something from the day may be in London, where his party's candidate is the left-wing incumbent "Red Ken" Livingstone.

There's an irony here though.

Livingstone, who opposed the war in Iraq and once called U.S. President George W. Bush "the most dangerous man on earth," won the job last time as an independent fighting against Labour.

story.livingstone.jpg
Livingstone rejoined the Labour Party after winning the London mayor's race as an independent.

Analysts say it shows Blair's desperation that he had to eat humble pie and welcome him back into the Labour fold.

Whether it's the "Iraq factor" or a mid-term reaction against a government which has now been in power for seven years, pollsters are predicting a pretty uncomfortable Super Thursday for Blair.

But his government scored a hefty general election victory two years after defeat in the last European contest, so there needn't be an immediate panic at No. 10 Downing Street if there's another setback his time.

Early returns that trickled out Friday gave no indication of the scale of the losses Blair's Labour Party is expected to suffer.

In results from six local councils, Labour was down two seats, the Conservative Party had gained two seats and the Liberal Democrats -- which staked its campaign on its being the only major party to oppose the war -- gained three seats.


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