LONDON, May 6 -- Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, the Bush administration's closest foreign ally, won a historic third successive term in office but appeared to have a significantly smaller parliamentary majority because of voter anger over his support for the war in Iraq.
A joint NOP-MORI exit poll and projections by the BBC and Sky News indicated that the ruling Labor Party, which Blair helped transform into a modern and politically moderate electoral machine, would win just 37 percent of the vote nationwide -- 5 percent less than its 2001 share. Its hold on the House of Commons would be cut by more than half to between 70 and 80 seats.
Gerald Sumner, left, and Kerry Thomas ride with a pack of hounds to vote in the village of Brent Pelham, England.
(Chris Young -- Press Association Via AP)
While the projected results still give Labor a solid majority in the 646-member chamber -- the first time the party had won three consecutive elections -- the sharp reduction in its total number of seats could speed Blair's departure from office. The results follow a short, sharp and highly personalized campaign in which opponents claimed Blair had lied about the reasons for going to war and could no longer be trusted.
The main opposition Conservative Party, which ran a pared-down, sharply focused campaign that emphasized law-and-order issues such as restricting immigration and adding police officers, would gain 30 to 44 seats, according to the projections. The third-party Liberal Democrats, the only major party that opposed the war, would gain five to 15. If the poll and projections prove accurate, Labor would be returned to power with the lowest share of the national vote of any ruling party in British history.
A tight-lipped Blair, speaking before local constituents after he was reelected in his northeast England district, acknowledged that Iraq had been "a divisive issue" throughout the country. "It seems clear that the British people wanted the return of a Labor government but with a reduced majority, and we have to respond to that sensibly and wisely," the prime minister said.
Robert Worcester, chairman of MORI, said that if the projections of Labor's reduced margin held up, it could lend momentum to efforts by Blair's heir apparent, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, to press the prime minister to step down. Blair has said this would be his last election, but he has pledged to serve a full term.
Although Brown expressed total support for Blair's stance on Iraq during the campaign, many analysts expect that as prime minister he would steer a more independent course from Washington on foreign policy issues.
The exit polls suggest "a third huge victory in a row," said election analyst Michael Portillo, a former Conservative cabinet secretary. "And if you look at the parliamentary majority over the Conservatives, it remains a very large number indeed. But certainly the Brownites will be snapping at Blair's heels, and this is at the lower end of what he was needing."
Thursday's balloting climaxed an intense contest that officially began just a month ago when Blair dissolved Parliament. He began the campaign season burdened with a catalogue of vulnerabilities, starting with his staunch support of President Bush, an unpopular figure here.
Blair's own trust ratings were down, not just because voters felt he misled them over the reasons for Britain's involvement in overthrowing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, but also because he had reversed previously held positions on other issues, supporting, for example, a sharp tuition increase at state universities. Blair's support among women, one of the cornerstones of his popularity, had eroded significantly.
The Conservatives, known as the Tories, were still recovering from two consecutive landslide defeats. The party chose as its leader Michael Howard, a 63-year-old political veteran who started out pushing issues designed to appeal to blue-collar voters. But Howard, nicknamed "Dracula" because of his Romanian ancestry and his grim countenance, appeared to gain little traction in the polls, which showed the Tories clinging to just over 30 percent of the vote nationwide.
When their platform issues failed to resonate, Howard and the Conservatives concentrated on Blair's character, seeking to reframe the Iraq war as an issue of trust. They were helped by disclosures that Blair had failed to divulge to his own cabinet an opinion by the attorney general that raised serious doubts about the legality of the war and memos suggesting Blair had agreed to support the Bush administration's efforts to oust Hussein as early as April 2002.
Each time Blair and Labor sought to return to their core campaign themes of claiming credit for Britain's booming economy and improved public services such as health care and education, Iraq reappeared, further damaging Blair's credibility and alienating disgruntled Labor voters.
Before the contest began, Blair, who turned 52 on Friday, declared this would be his last election, and he campaigned hard and enthusiastically, although one aide said he was disheartened at times by the sharp attacks on his government and his character.
The size of the victory could help determine not just how long Blair remains in office but how much power he will wield in a third term. The much-reduced margin is certain to increase pressure on him to step down early and hand over the reins to Brown.
The results of the vote varied widely throughout the country. Labor held on to most of its closely fought seats in the north, where the economy is thriving. But the Conservatives did well in the south and around London. Justine Greening, the Tory candidate who took the London seat in Putney, which Labor had held for two terms, told her constituents, "We're simply not willing to tolerate a government that is not straight with people on issues of national importance."
After Blair addressed his constituents, he stood grim-faced while Reg Keys, father of a British military police officer killed in Iraq, condemned the war and the prime minister. "Tonight there are lessons to be learned," said Keys, who ran against Blair as an independent candidate, "and I would hope in my heart one day the prime minister would be able to say sorry."
The Liberal Democrats, led by Charles Kennedy, picked up support all across the country, but not enough to make sizable gains in their total seats. The Conservatives were projected to win 33 percent of the vote nationwide -- similar to their 2001 total -- while the Liberal Democrats were projected to reach 22 percent, up nearly 4 percent.