British Leader Brown's Party Takes a Loss

Britain's Conservative Party has won a parliamentary seat from the ruling Labor Party in a by-election. The loss is being viewed as a barometer of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's eroding popularity.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Britain's Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and his Labour Party have suffered another political blow - an indirect one. Voters in a district in northern Britain have elected the conservative party candidate to parliament in what's called a by-election, and it's the first time in 30 years that the Conservative Party has taken a seat away from the Labour Party.

NPR's Rob Gifford has been monitoring the election returns and he joins us now to talk about what this all means and hello.

ROB GIFFORD: Hi. Morning.

MONTAGNE: What was the margin of victory and how significant is this?

GIFFORD: Well, the crucial thing here is the swing. There was a 17 percent swing to the Conservative Party. The Conservative candidate won by 7,000 votes. And I think it is being seen as very significant. This is the first time that the Conservative Party has taken a seat, not at a general election, but in a by-election, from the Labour Party in nearly 30 years.

And, of course, the Conservative Party is saying that this is very symbolic. And we're due to have a general election within the next couple of years. They're suggesting that this means that they're on a roll and could get elected at the general election.

MONTAGNE: How is the Labour Party, let's say, spinning this or seeing this? Does it say that it's that important or does it say it's just other things?

GIFFORD: Well, the Labour Party is obviously trying to play this down and blame it on external issues. The deputy leader of the Labour Party has said, of course, they're disappointed with this, but they're saying that this is really the world economy, the economic slowdown that's affecting people, that has made people launch a sort of protest vote, if you like, against the Labour Party.

The Labour Party says it's not more broadly significant. And once we get through these choppy waters in the global economy, Gordon Brown and the Labour Party are the people to take Britain forward at the next general election.

MONTAGNE: This is another in a series of embarrassments, at the least, for Gordon Brown. And he's not even been in office a year.

GIFFORD: Well, it's true. And, in fact, he had a couple of months of honeymoon last summer when he took over from Tony Blair. But since then, really, as I say, it was the world economy that went into some problems as we know over the last nine months, so some of it, to be fair to him, has been external.

But he hasn't helped himself either, because he has made a series of blunders, a series of gaffes - on issues like taxation - on which he's had to reverse himself. And he's really gaining a reputation here as a bit of ditherer, someone who can't really make decisions.

And I think the result that we've seen this morning is very much a result of that. People saying, hmm, I'm not sure - even taking into consideration the global economic situation - I'm not sure that this guy maybe is the leader for the country.

MONTAGNE: Now, under the parliamentary system there, a general election doesn't have to be held until 2010. Can Gordon Brown hold off that long?

GIFFORD: Well that's the big question. I think in the immediate future we're not going to see a challenge. In the British system you can be challenged as leader of your party outside the general election term, or before an election comes up at least. There is talk about that, but I think he's going to get a few more months.

And I think people here are saying that if by the fall he has not really started to turn things around and make improvements and show he can really run this ship of state, I think that we may well start to see someone challenging him as we go towards that next general election.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Rob Gifford speaking from London on the Labour Party's stunning loss in a parliamentary by-election.

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