LONDON Prime Minister Gordon Brown's hold on his job appeared weaker than ever Friday after a thumping defeat in a longtime Labour Party bastion, the latest in a string of fiascos that include a drubbing in local elections just three weeks ago.
One prominent analyst was already predicting the thrashing in the old railway town of Crewe could mark a "point of no return" for a hobbled government that has been forced into humiliating policy reversals under pressure from resurgent Tories led by the youthful David Cameron.
The defeat will encourage rebels within Brown's party urging a change in leadership before general elections that must be held before mid-2010.
Voters in the northwestern district of Crewe and Nantwich, who had elected the Labour candidate in every ballot since 1983, handed a landslide victory to Conservative candidate, final results showed Friday.
Cameron pronounced the result "the end of New Labour," the brand name for a one-time staunchly socialist party transformed by Brown and his predecessor Tony Blair into a centrist, free-market political machine.
"It's pretty bleak for Labour unless the economy picks up," said George Jones, professor emeritus of politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
"Global pressures are at work here, but people feel Brown is not governing with consistency and authority," Jones added.
Brown's initial burst of popularity after he succeeded Blair 11 months ago tempted him to consider an early national election but the spectacle of him agonizing over the idea before finally scrapping it won him a reputation as a "ditherer."
The same charge stuck over the government's slow reaction to the near-collapse of mortgage lender Northern Rock, which was eventually nationalized.
Then came the government's decision to abolish a 10 percent income tax band intended to benefit low earners. Following howls of protest from Labour lawmakers and pressure from Cameron, who seized Labour's traditional role of friend of the working man, the government borrowed 2.7 billion pounds (US$5.3 billion euro3.4 billion) to fund a relief package.
It all translated into a disastrous performance in municipal elections on May 1, in which Labour lost the mayorship of London to Boris Johnson, a Conservative known as much for his gaffes as for his astute intellect.
For many observers, the Crewe result all but seals Brown's fate.
"This election probably marked the point where the government passed the point of no return," political analyst Anthony Howard said in a British Broadcasting Corp. television interview.
"If you've had a government in for 11 years, then the electorate likes to change. That's the real thing that the government of Gordon Brown has to wrestle with," Howard said.
A poll released Friday by the BBC said 46 percent of the sample that Cameron would be the best prime minister while 23 percent favored Brown. The ComRes poll of 1,0006 voters on May 21-22 had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher and John Major held office for 18 straight years from 1979 to 1997, but then one must go back to the Liberal governments of 1905-1922 to find a longer run than Labour's three terms.
Brown, who built his reputation as Treasury chief during a decade of almost uninterrupted good times, blamed economic woes for the loss.
"The message we have got is that people are concerned they are concerned about rising food prices, rising petrol prices, people are concerned about gas bills, electricity bills, they are concerned about what is happening to the economy," he told reporters during a visit to a London hospital.
Conservative Edward Timpson beat Labour's Tamsin Dunwoody by nearly 8,000 votes in Crewe, taking the seat left vacant by the death of Dunwoody's mother, Gwyneth Dunwoody, who had occupied it for 25 years.
Labour may soon face more special election embarrassment in the Conservative stronghold of Henley-on-Thames, where Johnson is expected to resign his seat in Parliament ahead of schedule to give a further boost to Tory momentum.
The government's political troubles and funding scandals have also hurt its campaign coffers, with personal donations to the party down to one-tenth of their levels for the same period last year, the Financial Times reported Friday. That drop means that Labour is more dependent on unions than it has been for years.
Labour received about 203,000 pounds (US$406,000;euro257,000) from individual donors in the first quarter, compared to 2.23 million pounds (US$4.46 million; euro2.83 million) for the first three months of last year.
Jones suggested that voters only have to look at Brown to see one of Labour's problems.
"He looks depressed and worried. This is part of his problem, he creates mood of depression, whereas Tony Blair was optimism and high spirits," Jones said.