Brown faces up to poll blows

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor Prime minister-in-waiting Gordon Brown committed himself to restoring his party's battered credibility and electoral fortunes last night after a day of big reverses ended in an historic Labour defeat by the SNP in the elections to the Scottish Parliament.

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

Prime minister-in-waiting Gordon Brown committed himself to restoring his party's battered credibility and electoral fortunes last night after a day of big reverses ended in an historic Labour defeat by the SNP in the elections to the Scottish Parliament.

The Nationalists won by only one seat - 47 to Labour's 46 - and they may find it impossible to form a coalition administration with any other party unless they drop their main commitment to a referendum on independence.

But being reduced to second place in Scotland, where it has dominated the political scene for half-a-century, is much more than a great symbolic blow to Labour. The result potentially puts a great question mark against the viability of the political union between England and Scotland, and threatens to undermine Mr Brown, a Scot representing a Scottish constituency, as the prime minister of Britain.

The chancellor has been buoyed up by an announcement from Charles Clarke that he will not stand against him for the succession to Mr Blair.

The ex-home secretary and Norwich MP said there is "no appetite" inside the Labour Party for "a contest of a potentially divisive nature", and added that he would be willing to serve in a Brown cabinet.

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As it became clear that the SNP was set to become the largest party in the Holyrood parliament, and that Labour had lost over 450 council seats in England, Mr Brown struck a sombre note.

He issued a statement saying that "our mission as a Labour Party will be not just to maintain but to strengthen the unity of Britain in the interests of all" and that "my resolve is that we, the Labour Party, will listen and we will learn as we continue to work for and serve the people of Britain".

Soon afterwards he left his Scottish home at North Queensferry in a black Land Rover with darkened windows. And there was a marked contrast with the manner of Tony Blair. The soon-departing prime minister had earlier argued that the election results provided a "springboard" for his successor to lead Labour to a fourth consecutive general election victory.

A total of 65 votes is needed for a majority in the Edinburgh parliament. Neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats will be willing to go into coalition with SNP Alex Salmond unless he removes or heavily qualifies his pledge to hold an independence referendum by a "target date" of 2010.

And as the Tories have 17 seats in the parliament and the Lib Dems 16, a two-party coalition with the SNP would in either case fall short of a majority. But Mr Salmond was asserting his right last night to become First Minister in Scotland, and he lost no time in demanding a judicial inquiry into muddles over complex ballot papers that resulted in up to 100,000 being discounted. Relations between Labour and the SNP normally approach visceral loathing, and are set quickly to intensify.

As incoming prime minister, Mr Brown would also have to cope with a Tory party buoyed up by over 800 council seat gains in England.

There is comfort for him, however, in the fact that the Tories secured only about 40pc of the votes, and in the loss of about 250 seats by the Lib Dems.

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