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Defection keeps Iraq heat on Blair

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Iraq war puts the trust in Blair to the test as election approaches. CNN's Robin Oakley reports
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LONDON, England -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair was facing a fresh challenge over the Iraq war with the defection of an ex-Labour MP, although new polls showed Labour with a strong lead in the run-up to next week's election.

Brian Sedgemore left Blair's party overnight for the Liberal Democrats and urged voters Tuesday to give Blair a "bloody nose" at the May 5 polls.

"I urge everyone from the center and left of British politics to give Blair a bloody nose at the general election and vote for the Liberal Democrats," said Sedgemore, who stood down as an east London MP after 27 years in parliament and 37 years in the Labour Party.

Sedgemore has been a constant critic of the government from the backbenches, particularly over the war in Iraq but also over Blair's plans for hospitals, university tuition and controversial anti-terrorism measures.

Blair fought back with an interview in Tuesday's edition of The Guardian newspaper, appealing to voters not to back the Lib Dems.

"The Conservative campaign isn't based on a 'get in through the front door' strategy, it's based on 'get in by the back door,' with people thinking that they are sending a message but ending up with the opposite result to what they want," he said.

Tory leader Michael Howard's strategy was to "target marginal seats, not pretend that you are going to form a government, but to say 'send a message to the government'," said the prime minister.

"It means in a marginal seat someone might end up voting Lib Dem and get a Tory MP and a Tory government."

At his morning news conference on Tuesday, Blair shrugged off the defection of Sedgemore, saying: "What he does is up to him. He is not even a candidate at the election."

But Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy hailed the move as a "pivotal moment" in the election campaign.

Kennedy and Sedgemore scorned Labour's claim that a vote for their party would let the Tories in through the back door.

"The Conservatives self-evidently cannot win this general election," the Lib Dem leader said at a Tuesday morning news conference with Sedgemore.

"People who want to vote against Tony Blair for a variety of reasons can and should vote Liberal Democrat in that knowledge."

The latest polls show Labour with as much as a 10-point lead over the main Conservative opposition.

An NOP poll for the Independent newspaper put Blair's party at 40 percent, up three points over last week. The main opposition Conservatives were down two points to 30 percent and the Liberal Democrats were unchanged on 21 percent.

If the figures were repeated on election day, Blair would be returned to office for a third successive term with his 161-seat majority in parliament cut only slightly to about 150 seats, the Independent said.

The poll of 959 voters was conducted between Friday and Sunday, when the election campaign shifted for the first time to Blair's support for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

A poll by the Times newspaper and ITV News gave Blair's party an 8-point lead, with Labour at 41 percent, the Conservatives at 33 and the Liberal Democrats at 19.

On Monday Blair faced intense questioning from reporters about a newspaper report that the government's chief legal officer had serious doubts the war might be illegal before it began in March 2003.

Howard said Blair "did not tell the truth" about Britain's reasons for supporting the U.S.-led military campaign, and the Lib Dems demanded a full public inquiry into events leading up to the war. (Full story)

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