LONDON – Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party, shaken by corruption allegations and the release of foreign criminals, took a pounding Thursday in local elections widely seen as a referendum on his government.
Labour took 888 seats in preliminary counting, down 211 seats compared to the results of the last election. The Conservatives won 1,361 seats, a gain of 236. Labour lost control of 13 local councils — including some crucial boroughs in London — and the Tories gained eight.
The far-right British National Party won 12 seats.
Voters chose representatives to fill 4,360 seats in 176 local authorities across England, a little less than half of all English councils. London was the biggest battleground, with elections in all 32 boroughs.
Labour's apparent poor showing is likely to create more problems for the beleaguered Blair and could embolden those calling for him to step down soon or at least offer a timeline as to when he may leave office. His government has been battered by a slew of scandals in recent months.
Blair's office declined to comment, but the prime minister was expected to reshuffle his Cabinet on Friday in an effort to restore confidence in his government.
The vote was also the first test for opposition Conservative leader David Cameron, who took charge of the party in December.
Conservative chairman Francis Maude said his party's strong showing indicated Cameron's message was resonating with voters.
Anthony Seldon, who has written a biography of Blair, said Labour's response to the results would be crucial in determining the election's impact.
"Will there be open challenges to (Blair's) authority? Will there be demands that he set a date (to step down)?" he said.
Blair's name wasn't on the ballot, but for many he and his scandal-stained government were the biggest issue in the election.
"I think he's failed abominably, he's a walking disaster," said Ken Whitehead, 60, a retired airline pilot in the west London district of Ealing.
Blair has suffered through a rough couple of months, prompting some critics to urge him to resign soon and let his likely successor, Treasury chief Gordon Brown, take over as prime minister.
The government's acknowledgment last week that officials had failed to screen 1,023 foreign criminals for deportation before freeing them from prison over the past seven years was particularly damaging.
Crime and immigration are highly charged political issues and Cameron has hit Blair hard over the prisoner releases.
The far-right BNP, much of whose appeal is based on anti-immigrant sentiment, also appeared to benefit. It picked up 12 council seats.
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's acknowledgment last week that he had an extramarital affair with his secretary added an embarrassing element to the government's troubles. The woman reportedly claimed the two had had trysts in Prescott's office.
Blair's approval ratings began dropping a few months ago, amid allegations that he rewarded Labour's financial backers with nominations to the House of Lords and other honors, like knighthoods.