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British Prime Minister Blair Wins Historic Third Term

Blair acknowledged Friday that the Iraq war was “a deeply divisive issue” that hurt his party, but promised to “focus relentlessly now on the priorities that the people have set for us.”

“I know that Iraq has been a deeply divisive issue in this country… But I also know and believe that after this election people want to move on, they want to focus on the future — in Iraq and here,” Blair said outside his office on Downing Street after returning from Buckingham Palace, where Queen Elizabeth II confirmed his victory.

“The great thing about an election is that you go out and talk to people for week upon week,” Blair said. “And I’ve listened and I’ve learned.”

Blair’s Labour Party went into Thursday’s election with a dominant 161-seat majority in the 659-seat lower House of Commons, but opposition to Iraq and other domestic issues sapped the party’s strength, allowing Labour to emerge with only a 60-seat majority. That far smaller majority in parliament could help weaken Blair’s mandate during his five-year term and could even determine how long he remains in office, the Associated Press and The New York Times reported.

“It seems clear that the British people wanted the return of a Labour government but with a reduced majority, and we have to respond to that sensibly and wisely,” Blair told local voters after he was reelected in his northeast England district, the New York Times reported. Labour needed at least 324 seats to form a majority in the 646-seat House of Commons.

With 626 seats reporting, Labour had a total of 355 seats, down from 412 at the last election in 2001, while the Conservative Party gained 31 seats for a total of 197. The third-party Liberal Democrats — the only major party to oppose the Iraq war — increased their representation from 51 to 62, while independents and smaller parties garnered 12 seats, the AP and The New York Times reported Friday afternoon.

Later Friday, Michael Howard, leader of the main opposition Conservative Party, announced he would step down before the next election to allow a younger leader to take over. Howard said he would be too old at the age of 67 or 68 to lead the party through the next election, and would rather step aside “sooner rather than later,” the BBC reported. However, he plans to stay on as leader until the party considers whether to reform its rules for electing a successor.

When asked about this year’s election, Howard said that the Conservatives, also known as the Tories, should be proud of the results.

“Today the Conservative Party can hold its head up high. We have begun the process of rebuilding our party, of building a broad and outward-looking party that reflects Britain in the 21st century,” Howard told reporters.

The election results mark the first time that the Labour Party has won three consecutive elections since the party was created in 1900. Margaret Thatcher of the Conservative Party was the only other prime minister in modern British history to do so.

Blair on Friday promised “radical” legislation to overhaul health, education and law and order issues. He also met senior Cabinet colleagues Friday in advance of a likely government reshuffle. The government’s program will be announced by the queen at the state opening of Parliament on May 17, the AP reported.

President Bush, who left Friday for a five-day, four-country tour of central and eastern Europe, called Blair from Air Force One to congratulate him on his re-election, White House spokeswoman Corry Schiermeyer told the AP.

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