[see part IV here]

London, May 6 -- Tony Blair�s third election victory yesterday was a personal triumph, after a campaign which his opponents, by accusing him of lying over the Iraq war, deliberately turned into a referendum on his character. It was also a triumph for the Atlantic alliance and a vindication of his decision to support George W. Bush. It may even prove to have turned the tide of anti-Americanism that has flowed so strongly in Europe for the past few years.

Needless to say, that is not how the media here in London are portraying Mr Blair�s historic achievement. Though it is the first time that Labour has ever won three successive terms, the fact that the party�s majority in the House of Commons has been reduced by about 100 seats is attributed to the Iraq factor -- and to Mr Blair�s unpopularity.

Yet the fact of that majority is much more important than its size. What matters is that the Prime Minister could take a courageous and unpopular decision, endure a gruelling two years during which his every word about the war, public and private, was scrutinised, and yet can still command a solid majority over all other parties.

This was not as bad a result for the Conservatives as they had privately feared, but it was still mediocre. After eight years in opposition, their vote has hardly increased at all. Tory strength in the House of Commons is still below Labour�s all-time low in 1983, in Margaret Thatcher�s heyday. The Conservatives will have a few excellent new members of Parliament, such as the columnist Michael Gove, but they are still living down to their reputation as �the stupidest party� -- a name they acquired from John Stuart Mill nearly 150 years ago, and it has stuck.

The fact that the Conservatives did win a few dozen seats was due partly to better organisation, focused on marginal constituencies; partly to local factors (the Left-wing mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, has earned Labour some unpopularity in the capital, where the party did worst) and partly to the strong showing of the Liberal Democrats, who gained many more votes but far fewer seats than the Tories. The main reason why the Tories appeared to do better than in 1997 or 2001, however, was simply that Labour did less well.

Moreover, the opposition is so hopelessly split that it can hardly exploit Labour�s own internal divisions over the war and Mr Blair�s market-oriented agenda, though these divisions are certainly serious. The Lib Dems, who received nearly a quarter of the vote but only a tenth of the seats, are anti-war, pro-European and far to the Left of Mr Blair on domestic policy. The Tories, who gained about a third of the vote and a similar proportion of seats, are split on the war, mostly anti-European and slightly to the Right of Mr Blair. It is rare to find major issues on which Lib Dems and Tories will unite.

Apart from worries about how long this right-of-centre, robustly pro-American Prime Minister will continue to occupy Downing Street, there are two disturbing consequnces of this election. First, it has tilted the House of Commons further to the Left, because most of the Labour MPs who lost their seats were younger, moderate Blairites; the rump who remain are the old-style socialists.

Secondly, the Muslim factor played a bigger part than ever before -- and a damaging one for British democracy. Cities with large concentrations of Muslim voters all registered strong votes against Tony Blair and for anti-war candidates of any other party, however extreme. It looks as though many Muslims still obey their community leaders and imams and vote en bloc.

As the proportion of Muslims grows, due to a higher birthrate and immigration, we are seeing this behaviour affecting more and more seats, as politicians make greater efforts to appease Muslim demands. Labour has already promised a new law to restrict �incitement to religious hatred� which nobody except the Muslims wanted. Now that the imams have flexed their electoral muscle, we can expect the Islamic shopping list to grow over the next few years.

[see part IV here]