29% swing away from blair

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    Lib Dem byelection triumph

    Blow to Blair as stronghold Brent falls to 29% swing

    Michael White and Sarah Hall
    Friday September 19, 2003
    The Guardian

    The Liberal Democrats staged a sensational byelection victory early today when they came from third place to win the Brent East byelection with a 29% swing that will shake Tony Blair's confidence on the eve of Labour's Bournemouth conference.

    Downing Street's nightmare became reality just as the prime minister reorganises his kitchen cabinet in the wake of months of controversy over Iraq and the Hutton inquiry and continuing voter scepticism about the pace of public service reform.

    It puts Mr Blair back where he hoped not to be when he rises to address Labour conference activists with a "no retreat" message in less than two weeks time, on the back foot and under pressure to embrace a more traditional Labour philosophy.

    His promises to listen more carefully will now have to be redoubled. Many party critics will blame Iraq - a divisive issue in Brent - though loyalists claim it was less important than local issues in the campaign. Others will claim that their leader is, after nine years of unbroken success, is now becoming a liability.

    Sarah Teather, the 29-year-old new MP for the inner city multi-ethnic seat once held by Ken Livingstone, beat Robert Evans, the local Labour MEP, easily to turn the late Paul Daisley's 2001 majority of 13,047 votes into a Liberal Democrat majority of 1,118. She will be the youngest member of the Commons.

    For Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, who invested his personal prestige and a large chunk of his summer holiday pounding the pavements of north-west London, it was the biggest boost for his oft-criticised leadership since Sandra Gidley's capture of the safe Tory seat of Romsey in May 2000.

    It brings his parliamentary party at Westminster up to 54 MPs, the largest number since the 1920s and, at least for the moment, gives weight to his team's claim that the Conservatives are failing to capitalise on Labour's discomforts and should "step aside and let the Liberal Democrats take on this government".
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