Prime Minister Tony Blair said Friday his Labor Party had won a new mandate to govern Britain but must "respond wisely" to voters who gave it another term in power with a reduced majority.
A fresh mandate for Labor -- with reduced support
"We have got to listen to the people and respond wisely and sensibly but they have made it very clear -- they wanted to carry on with Labor," Blair told party workers. "We have got a mandate to govern this country again," Blair said.
As results came in from Thursday's vote, Blair's Labour Party passed the required 324 seats to gain an absolute majority in the House of Commons, meaning it could govern without the support of other parties. Proud that the party had won a third term, Blair said: "Let's go out and make the most of it."
German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder on Friday was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Blair on the victory of his Labor Party in the general election, noting that the results also fell on Blair's birthday. "I think that with this electoral victory, you've given yourself the best birthday present possible," said Schröder in a brief message to Blair.
The outcome of Thursday's general election called into question Blair's stated intention to serve a full term before handing over the reins of power, most probably to his ambitious finance minister, Gordon Brown.
With ballots counted in 619 constituencies, Labor had won 353 seats in the 646-seat House of Commons, ahead of Michael Howard's Conservatives with 195 seats and the Liberal Democrats with 59 seats. Independents and Scottish and Welsh nationalists took the other seats.
A BBC-ITV exit poll forecast an eventual 66-seat majority, well down from Labor's huge 167-seat majority in the last elections of June 2001. Sky News television projected an 80-seat majority.
Blair and his wife, Cherie, with sons Euan (l) and Nicky (r) outside a polling station in Trimdon, in the prime minister's Sedgefield constituency, to cast their vote in the general election on May 5.
"To be re-elected for a third time is very special, so it's a tremendous privilege and an honor," Blair told a hall full of cheering supporters in his home district of Sedgefield, northeast England. "Let's make sure we use it for the good of our country and the people."
But he conceded that his position has been weakened.
"It is clear that the British people wanted the return of the Labor Party, but with a reduced majority," he said. "We have to respond to that sensibly, wisely and responsibly."
Michael Howard, cheered by his Tories' strongest performance at the polls since Blair and Labor broke their 18-year run in power in May 1997, conceded defeat, but with a warning to the prime minister. "I congratulate him (but) I believe that the time has now come for him to deliver on the things that really matter for the people of our country," he told his party faithful.
Final results were not due in before late Friday, when Blair -- US President George W. Bush's staunchest ally on the world stage -- will have already started putting together a new cabinet.
But his opponents wasted no time in savoring his setback.
"We have landed a good hard punch on Mr Blair's nose," said Alex Deane, chief of staff for Tim Collins, education spokesman for the Conservative Party.
Iraq war lost Labout votes
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw admitted on BBC television: "I don't think there's any doubt that Iraq played a part in the reduction in votes (for Labor)."
Blair was keen to fight the election on Labor's stewardship of the robust British economy and the need to press on with much-needed health and education reforms. But Iraq returned to haunt him, especially when he was forced mid-way through the campaign to publish a secret memo from his attorney general that questioned the legality of invading Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
Howard branded Blair a "liar," a rare accusation for one British politician to make to another, while Liberal Democrats chief Charles Kennedy had hoped to cash in on his party's anti-war stance.
With the election out of the way, Blair will be turning his attention to the international stage, as Britain takes over the rotating EU presidency on July 1 and hosts a Group of Eight summit in Scotland on July 6-8.
But he faces yet another daunting challenge, as he has pledged to put the EU constitution, the subject of a closely-fought referendum in France on May 29, before the famously euroskeptic British public next year.
Longer term, the outcome of the election raises questions as to whether Blair will be able to make good on his desire, announced last year, to serve a full term if re-elected, and then resign. "This is not good for Labor. This means Blair goes quickly," probably two years into his maximum five-year term, professor Richard Sennett of the London School of Economics (LSE) told AFP.
Patrick Dunleavy, another LSE professor, added: "It perhaps suggests that people are happy with a Labor government, but unhappy with Tony Blair because of the Iraq War."
Shortly after polling stations opened Thursday, two grenades -- described by police as "novelty-type grenades filled with black powder" -- went off outside the British consulate in New York City.
No one was injured, but the incident on the other side of the Atlantic prompted British police, themselves already on heightened terrorist alert, to bolster their presence in London and elsewhere.