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Byline: By Peter Young

Tony Blair is facing his toughest test since becoming Prime Minister nearly eight years ago as he battles to win a third term at the coming General Election.

MPs return to Westminster next week after the Christmas break predicting an election in the spring and next month's Labour Party conference on Tyneside is likely to provide the springboard.

Most of the Cabinet is expected to attend and though the event at The Sage Gateshead will focus on local government, women and youth, the conference will be of wider significance and will probably amount to a pre-election rally.

The Prime Minister will be seeking to put the troubles of the past year behind him as he seeks a historic third victory but it won't be easy. Iraq has continued to haunt Mr Blair and his reputation has been seriously damaged by the fiasco over so far non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

He was forced to call in favours to avoid defeat by his own party over university tuition fees and the jury is still out over the Government's efforts to improve public services.

Mr Blair faced flour bombs in the Commons from the Fathers4Justice campaign and embarrassing confrontations with the fox hunting lobby.

And always lurking in the background is the shadow of Chancellor Gordon Brown who many within Labour's ranks want to see as Prime Minister.

Mr Blair has said if he is re-elected he intends to stand down before the following General Election but his decision to bring Darlington MP Alan Milburn back into the Cabinet in a key role masterminding strategy has led to speculation he, and not Mr Brown, is Mr Blair's preferred successor.

Labour MPs think they'll win the election but with a reduced majority while Conservative leader Michael Howard and the resurgent Liberal Democrats under Charles Kennedy will be seeking to cash in on Mr Blair's troubles at home and abroad.

Certainly, 2004 was not a good year for Mr Blair in his North East heartland where Labour suffered a series of setbacks.

The most serious was probably the loss of the region's flagship council, Newcastle, to the Liberal Democrats after 30 years of Labour rule.

The Lib Dems also won their first ever North East seat in the European Parliament when Fiona Hall snatched a place from Labour and they came close to capturing Hartlepool at a Westminster by-election when Labour's majority was slashed from 14,000 to just over 2,000.

In North Tyneside, run by Conservative mayor Linda Arkley, the Tories enjoyed some success when they consolidated their position by winning a majority in the council chamber.

However, the Tories failed to make any impression in Newcastle where they are still without a council seat since 1996.

One of Labour's biggest humiliations during 2004 was the resounding rejection by voters of plans for an elected North East Assembly, the brainchild of Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.

A series of high profile Labour figures, from Mr Blair downwards, were drafted in to bolster the flagging campaign but all to no avail as the anti-assembly lobby wheeled their symbolic inflatable white elephant around the region and won the argument hands down.

Of course, regional government was also heavily backed by the Lib Dems and the rejection by voters by a margin of nearly four to one was a boost for the Tories who have always been sceptics.

The Lib Dems are the main opposition party of local government in the North East and are targeting Newcastle Central, Durham City and Blaydon at the General Election following last year's successes.

The Tories' best hope is Tynemouth which they lost to Labour's Alan Campbell in the 1997 landslide and that's where they'll be concentrating resources.

Predictions for 2005? Well, Labour should win the election with a reduced majority, probably of between 50 and 100 seats. The Liberal Democrats can expect another good year. The Conservatives may make some gains but not enough to win power and may be looking for another new leader.
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Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jan 6, 2005
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