The ruling Conservative Party lost a parliamentary by-election Friday in a sharp rebuke of a new local tax.

Liberal Democrat Mike Carr won the Ribble Valley House of Commons seat with 22,377 votes, easily beating Conservative Nigel Evans who gained 17,776 votes. Labor's Josie Farrington showed poorly with 4,356 votes.Despite daylong heavy drizzle, the turnout was 72 percent, indicating high interest among voters in the issue that dominated the campaign - the poll tax.

"When poll tax is finally put to rest in the grave, its epitaph will read `here lies the poll tax, killed in Ribble Valley,' " said Carr, a 44-year-old school teacher.

It was a stunning defeat for the Conserva

tives who won the northwest England seat in 1987 with nearly a 20,000-vote majority. The swing in the vote from Conservative to Liberal Democrat was 25 percent.

"This is a devastating blow to Labor's hopes of winning the next election," Liberal Democratic leader Paddy Ashdown said. "It's a body blow for the Tories whose policies have been rumbled. And it's excellent news for the Liberal Democrats. It marks our steady progress."

The loss came despite Prime Minister John Major's popularity following the successful conclusion of the Persian Gulf war. After 100 days in office, he is the most popular premier in 36 years with a 59 percent approval rating.

Major said no conclusion could be drawn from the results because exit polls showed that his party would have won in a general election.

"My principal disappointment to be frank is that we had by far the best candidate in Nigel Evans, and on this particular occasion he didn't win the election," Major told reporters outside 10 Downing Street, "but I have no doubt he will when it comes to the general election."

Pointing to the exit polls and a survey published Friday in the Daily Telegraph Friday that gave the Conservatives a 8.5 percent lead nationally over Labor, Tory Party Chairman Chris Patton dismissed suggestions that the Ribble Valley election was a major setback.

"I think what people are saying is that they want a Conservative government, but they don't much like the community charge. I put the point perhaps a little mildly," he told the British Broadcasting Corp.