BRITISH prime minister Gordon Brown, his popularity plunging and his reputation for economic competence under fire, faced his first electoral test yesterday since taking over from Tony Blair in June.
Britons voted in local elections across England and Wales, as well as in a close battle between two political mavericks for the powerful job of mayor of London.
The ruling Labour party did badly at the last local elections in 2004, when public anger was running high over Britain’s backing for the United States in the Iraq war.
If Brown loses even more ground this time — and the capital falls to the opposition Conservative party — it would further damage his standing and fan speculation over a possible challenge to his leadership.
“It becomes a story. Every small mistake adds up. It will be seen as part of this narrative that it is a government in disarray,” said James North, 30, a computer programmer voting in north London.
Victory for Conservative candidate Boris Johnson in the race to be mayor of London would be a boost for party leader David Cameron, who will try to end a Labour run of three successive triumphs at the next national parliamentary election.
“I think it is going to be very close,” London mayor Ken Livingstone told reporters as he cast his vote.
“Nothing is certain until tonight,” said Johnson.
Governments traditionally suffer a bloody nose in mid-term polls and Brown does not have to call a parliamentary election until 2010, by which time he will be hoping the global credit crunch will have eased.
He got a glimmer of good news yesterday after the Bank of England signalled the worst of the crunch might be over and said banks were being too cautious in their lending.
However, that will be tempered by data showing manufacturing growth continues to slow while prices rocket.
Brown’s standing soared after he took over from Blair after 10 years as finance minister overseeing steady economic growth.
But the media and opposition accused him of dithering over calling a snap election in October — a move he eventually decided against — and he has also been hit by party in-fighting, economic turmoil and industrial unrest.
Some 4,000 seats on 160 councils across England and Wales are up for grabs in the local elections.
At stake in the mayoral election is the responsibility for a £11 billion (e14bn) budget and the running of one of the world’s leading financial centres.
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